The Associated Press has an update on NASA v. Nelson, which I’ve written about before. The case concerns a George W. Bush-era security policy at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in La Cañada Flintridge, which has raised substantial privacy questions.
In an op-ed last year for the Los Angeles Times, Tim Rutten wrote, “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.” Rutten wrote that this was the case though “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.”
The Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals found for the NASA workers, barring implementation of the Bush policy. Now, the Associated Press reports that the Obama administration will argue the case before the Supreme Court:
At issue is whether the government has the right to probe the personal lives of low-risk contractors with access to federal facilities. The lab employees objected to the background checks, saying they were intrusive and violated their privacy. […]
None of the JPL workers who sued work on classified projects or have security clearances, though several are involved in high-profile missions including the twin Mars rovers and the Cassini spacecraft studying Saturn and its moons.
The plaintiffs don’t deny that the government has the right to confirm a person’s identity and education for employment. But requiring background checks of low-risk employees, which includes probes into medical records, finances and drug history, is an invasion of privacy, they say.
The Justice Department, which is representing NASA, declined to comment. In court filings, it countered that the background investigations were “minimally intrusive.” “There is no support for respondents’ speculation that the government will use the background-check process to pry into their private lives,” it said.