High court to hear NASA privacy case
PASADENA, Calif. — For the past three years, Robert Nelson has been juggling two lives.
He’s a senior research scientist at the NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory by day, attempting to determine whether Saturn’s giant moon Titan is volcanically active. When he’s not exploring the cosmos, he’s leading a legal fight to prevent his employer from asking private details about his life.
“It’s almost like having a second job,’’ Nelson said. “It takes you away from something you’d rather be doing.’’
Since Nelson and two dozen other JPL scientists and engineers sued the government in 2007, the case has crawled through the court system. The US Supreme Court will hear arguments tomorrow.
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.
A federal judge who allowed the security checks to go forward was overturned by the Ninth US Circuit Court of Appeals, which said the investigations threaten the constitutional rights of workers. NASA appealed to the Supreme Court, which agreed to referee the dispute.
JPL is NASA’s premier robotics lab, famous for sending unmanned spacecraft to Mars and the outer solar system. Unlike other NASA research centers, it’s run by the California Institute of Technology. Lab scientists, engineers, and staff are Caltech employees, but the 177-acre campus and its buildings are owned by NASA.
In 2007, NASA extended background checks for federal employees to its contract workers in response to a presidential directive that ordered government agencies to beef up security at facilities and computer systems.
None of the JPL workers who sued works on classified projects or has security clearances, though several are involved in high-profile missions including the twin Mars rovers and the Cassini spacecraft.
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, countered in court filings 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.
NASA has been backed by companies that perform screenings for the government and private employers such as landlords. They argued that open-ended questions during background checks are routine and necessary.
Since filing the lawsuit, the lab researchers have rallied for public support. They wrote to their congressmen and senators and encouraged colleagues to do the same. They handed out leaflets to cars coming onto campus and some have worn T-shirts proclaiming their opposition to the background checks.