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JPL Background Check Case Reaches Supreme Court 112

Posted by timothy
from the faster-boys-if-you-want-your-pay dept.
Dthief writes "A long-running legal battle between the United States government and a group of 29 scientists and engineers of the Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in Pasadena, California, has now reached the US Supreme Court." At issue: mandatory background checks for scientists and engineers working at JPL, which they allege includes snooping into their sexual orientation, as well as their mental and physical health.
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JPL Background Check Case Reaches Supreme Court

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  • mental health? (Score:3, Interesting)

    by dAzED1 (33635) <brianlamere@ya[ ].com ['hoo' in gap]> on Saturday March 13, 2010 @01:24AM (#31461750) Homepage Journal

    so...someone's mental health is not relevant to whether or not they can work on top secret projects?

  • by wisebabo (638845) on Saturday March 13, 2010 @01:25AM (#31461752) Journal

    Just for your reading enjoyment, here's my submission MONDAY MARCH 08, @11:44AM (http://slashdot.org/submission/1188548/Bureaucracy-at-NASA-gone-mad?art_pos=7).

    Guess the slashdot editors don't like my writing style. ;)

    Okay, if there was ever a reason to shut down, dismantle and start NASA over it is this. The Supreme Court is deciding whether invasive (to me at least) personal background checks (sex lives, medical records) will be required of all JPL employees/independent contractors. No top secret work is done there and (I suppose) nothing military or even directly industry related. (In fact I thought the work of NASA was "For All Mankind".) Anyway, 28 scientists and engineers have so far refused to comply and if they lose this case will be fired.

    While NASA claims that all Federal employees must go through this kind of check, I don't think these guys fit into the "all" category. It IS rocket science and I'm sure most of them have an IQ/educational background/creativity quotient that is extremely rare. I guess there could be a reason to do this if you were afraid that some personal information could be used to blackmail someone but as I mentioned before, what they are creating is destined to be public anyway.

    So what if one guy has a fetish for SCUBA gear and chicken feathers? More seriously, look what happened to Alan Turing (father of the computer); if the Brits had had this policy in place and denied him any serious work in the war effort, computer technology would have set way back (and perhaps the decoding of Enigma and the winning of the war). As it is, they only managed to get him to commit suicide AFTER he had done some incredibly important work.

    Look, if one of them is committing a crime/becoming a public menace, let the police deal with it. Otherwise keep the Republican religious police out of our bedrooms! (drug dens?).

  • by Anonymous Coward on Saturday March 13, 2010 @02:13AM (#31462004)

    These employees had gone through a background check (NAC) when they were first hired. They have no access to classified information, nor do they have access to locations where classified projects may be developed. The requirement extends to the cafeteria workers and the groundskeepers. The plaintiffs are employees of Caltech and are not civil servants.

    The investigations (and re-investigations every 5 years) would require the employees do "voluntarily" sign a waiver (http://www.opm.gov/forms/pdf_fill/sf85.pdf [opm.gov]) that would authorize any investigator to "obtain any information" from a long list of enumerated and "other" sources, and would authorize any custodians of such information to release it on request, "regardless of any previous agreement to the contrary".

    The investigators then send questionnaires (http://edocket.access.gpo.gov/2005/pdf/05-21051.pdf [gpo.gov]) to neighbors, former employers, and references asking, in an open-ended manner, for any derogatory information.

    After the investigators are done, a NASA official "adjudicates" the applicant based on criteria that include "carnal knowledge", "attitude", "sodomy", and, sometimes, "adultery" and "cohabitation". The criteria had been posted on a NASA website, (http://nasapeople.nasa.gov/references/SuitabilitySecurityDeskGuide.pdf [nasa.gov] ), now replaced with an empty page. The plaintiffs have posted a copy at (http://hspd12jpl.org/files/SuitabilitySecurityDeskGuide.pdf [hspd12jpl.org] , see page 65 of the pdf). In their latest court filing (http://www.justice.gov/osg/briefs/2009/2pet/7pet/2009-0530.pet.rep.pdf [justice.gov]) the Solicitor General denies that NASA uses this.

    A lot more on this is at the plaintiff's website, http://hspd12jpl.org/ [hspd12jpl.org].

  • by bware (148533) on Saturday March 13, 2010 @03:16AM (#31462248) Homepage

    JPL employees do not work for the government; they work for Caltech. NASA data is not classified; just the opposite. By law it is required to be made available to the public (subject to ITAR restrictions). Very few projects at JPL require any kind of clearance. 5% of JPL works on non-NASA projects, i.e., something that could be classified, so 250 people of 5000. Of those, probably less than 100 need a clearance (most non-NASA projects at JPL are not classified, rather the money comes from NSF or industry or some other grant). Those projects that are sensitive, are not "highly" secret, as those things go. It just isn't that kind of lab. On those that are sensitive, the people working on them do go through the background checks. On the usual need-to-know basis, why does that mean that everyone else working there (4900 people of 5000) need to have a clearance or this sort of intrusive background check? If the 100 people with clearance do their job, no one else has access to anything classified. If they don't, having the other 4900 people have a background check won't help because security has already failed. I've had a clearance elsewhere so I'm familiar with the drill. If you have clearance to one thing, that doesn't mean you have clearance to anything else, whether at that level or below. One of the reasons I took this job is because it had no background check.

    These sorts of checks haven't been required at JPL for the last 50 years, through wars cold and hot. Why now?

    Or are you suggesting that anyone who works for the government, directly or indirectly, be subject to this sort of background check? Teachers? Dept. of Interior? Fish and Wildlife? USGS? Highway subcontractors? After all, it's all federal funds. No one has a right to government money. Do your rights go out the window if you get paid by the government first, second, or third hand?

    Clearly it's ridiculous to suggest that USFS employees go through a background check, as it is the guys pushing shovels on the highway. So the question is, where is the line drawn? For the past 50 years, it's been drawn on the other side of JPL employees with no issues. Why so eager to toss our rights down the drain, and for what benefit?

  • by gardyloo (512791) on Saturday March 13, 2010 @12:23PM (#31464446)

    I don't disagree. I work in a facility in which nuclear weapons and chemical/biological weapons research is done, but I am nowhere near it. The fact that all of the researchers have to go through nominal background investigations despite having nothing to do with the "behind-the-fence" stuff is pretty annoying. It makes life pretty difficult for everyone.

Given its constituency, the only thing I expect to be "open" about [the Open Software Foundation] is its mouth. -- John Gilmore

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