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    Op-Ed at Los Angeles Times: Lift the cloud over JPL

    At the Los Angeles Times, Tim Rutten has an opinion column about “an ill-conceived security policy” at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in La Cañada Flintridge, which has raised substantial privacy questions.

    This problem began in the Bush/Cheney administration’s hysterical response to 9/11. Presidential Directive 12, issued by the then-new Department of Homeland Security, ordered federal agencies to adopt a uniform badge that could be used by employees and contractors to gain access to government facilities. NASA demanded that Caltech, which operates JPL on the space agency’s behalf, require all of the lab’s civilian scientists and engineers to sign a waiver allowing federal investigators to ransack their personal lives. The waiver empowered the feds to secretly question ex-husbands and wives, disgruntled neighbors and resentful colleagues about every detail of the subjects’ lives. If the investigators turned up anything they felt disqualified somebody, there was no provision for appeal. Anyone who refused to sign the waiver was to be fired.

    Less than 10% of the work carried out at JPL involves classified science, and the employees working on those projects already are covered by the government’s security clearance system. So a group of the civilian scientists and engineers who would have been forced to submit to the Bush/Cheney inquisition sued in federal court, arguing that Directive 12 violated their right to privacy by requiring disclosure of personal information utterly unrelated to their work. […]

    The U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals ultimately found merit in the suit’s objections and, last year, halted imposition of the presidential directive on the lab. There matters remained, and the plaintiffs hoped that the Obama administration would let the matter die. However, last week — just five minutes before the government’s right to appeal the 9th Circuit ruling would have expired — Solicitor General Elena Kagan asked the U.S. Supreme Court to hear the case.

    Kagan argues that the government does not violate the right to privacy by collecting information on an individual, only by disseminating it. Further, she contends that the 9th Circuit’s ruling threatens the whole regulation of the civil service.

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