The U.S. Supreme Court will hear arguments this week on whether NASA has the right to probe the personal lives of contract employees with access to federal facilities. As the Los Angeles Times reported Sunday, the case pits NASA against 28 CalTech employees who work at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory and object on privacy grounds to the contractor background checks the U.S. space agency instituted in 2004 in response to a presidential security directive. None of the contractors, including Robert Nelson, lead plaintiff in the three-year-old case, work on classified projects. A federal judge who allowed the background checks to go forward was overturned by the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, setting the stage for NASA’s appeal to the Supreme Court.
“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.
“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 about their case and some have worn T-shirts proclaiming their opposition to the background checks.
“The Union of Concerned Scientists, which filed an amicus brief on behalf of the lab workers, worried that NASA may lose its scientific edge.”
Braun Says NASA Will Determine Heavy Lifter Design [The Orlando Sentinel]