US Supreme Court says NASA background security checks do not go too far

In a long-running dispute about privacy and security, the US Supreme Court today sided with NASA saying its background checks were not invasive and that the information required for not only NASA but most government positions was a reasonable security precaution and that sufficient  privacy safeguards existed to prevent any improper disclosures.

You may recall that in this case, 28 scientists and engineers at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory filed suit against the US government and the California Institute of Technology (Caltech) in 2007 saying that NASA's invasive background investigations as required by government regulations. Such regulations are in part aimed at gathering information to develop a common identification standard that ensures that people are who they say they are, so government facilities and sensitive information stored in networks remains protected.

From Bloomberg: The case offered the court a chance to say whether the Constitution protects against the disclosure of private information. The justices instead said they didn't have to reach that issue because the questions, including one asking references for adverse information, were a legitimate way to protect against security risks.  "The challenged portions of the forms consist of reasonable inquiries in an employment background check," Justice Samuel Alito wrote for the court.

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Alito wrote: "Assuming, without deciding, that the Government's challenged inquiries implicate a privacy interest of constitutional significance, that interest, whatever its scope, does not prevent the Government from asking reasonable questions of the sort included on SF-85 and Form 42 in an employment background investigation that is subject to the Privacy Act's safeguards against public disclosure.

"Standard background investigations similar to those at issue became mandatory for federal civil-service candidates in 1953, and the investigations challenged here arose from a decision to extend that requirement to federal contract employees. This history shows that the Government has an interest in conducting basic background checks in order to ensure the security of its facilities and to employ a competent, reliable workforce to carry out the people's business. The interest is not diminished by the fact that respondents are contract employees. There are no meaningful distinctions in the duties of NASA's civil-service and contractor employees, especially at JPL, where contract employees do work that is critical to NASA's mission and that is funded with a multibillion dollar taxpayer investment."

Lower courts had stated one of the matters of considerable interest pertained to the demand by Caltech that every JPL employee 'voluntarily' agree to submit to an open ended background investigation, conducted by unknown investigators, in order to receive an identification badge that was compliant with HSPD#12. The government argued that there were no limits to the extent of the investigation. If an employee refused to 'volunteer', Caltech would terminate the employee, the release stated.

From Reuters: "The ruling was a defeat for 28 scientists, engineers and other employees who challenged the in-depth background checks required at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in California as needlessly intrusive. The longtime contract employees, who had been classified as low risk, refused to submit to the checks for information on medical treatment or counseling for drug use or any other adverse information, including private sexual matters. Government background checks typically include inquiries to an employee's neighbors and friends in seeking personal information, such as emotional and financial stability."

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