Supreme Court will weigh in on NASA contractor dispute

The Supreme Court on Tuesday will hear arguments from NASA contractors who claim the government has violated their privacy with intrusive background checks.

The case involves 28 California Institute of Technology scientists, under contract with NASA at the Jet Propulsion Lab in Pasadena, Calif. On Thursday, Virginia Keeny, attorney for the JPL scientists, said the case will address the broader question of whether the government can "force employees whose jobs have no effect on national security to reveal private information in order to keep their jobs." Keeny spoke during a conference call organized by the Union of Concerned Scientists, a nonprofit dedicated to protecting the integrity and independence of science.

"The court decision will have an impact far beyond JPL," she said.

The JPL scientists sued NASA in 2007 over implementation of the Bush administration's Homeland Security Presidential Directive 12, which requires a standardized identification card for all government employees and contractors. Before the cards are issued, employees and contractors are subject to extensive background checks that include questions about their ethnicity, finances and health.

None of the JPL scientists involved in the case conduct research considered classified or high risk, and they believe these background checks are unnecessary and unconstitutional.

Robert Nelson, a JPL scientist for 32 years and lead plaintiff in the case, said the background checks include probing of "films we view, books we read and the names of the people we associate with. My personal life is my own business, and it is irrelevant to my job performance."

NASA's public affairs office declined to comment on the case.

According to Kurt Gottfried, UCS co-founder and board member, the court's decision will set a precedent for other independent, federally funded research institutions. He fears that intrusive background checks will discourage talented researchers from working with the government, or other federally sponsored institutions and negatively affect the country's body of scientific work.

On Thursday, Gottfried spoke highly of scientists at JPL. "They have made historic contributions to human knowledge." Keeny expects a verdict on the case from the court within the next few months.

Stay up-to-date with federal news alerts and analysis — Sign up for GovExec's email newsletters.
FROM OUR SPONSORS
JOIN THE DISCUSSION
Close [ x ] More from GovExec
 
 

Thank you for subscribing to newsletters from GovExec.com.
We think these reports might interest you:

  • Sponsored by G Suite

    Cross-Agency Teamwork, Anytime and Anywhere

    Dan McCrae, director of IT service delivery division, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA)

    Download
  • Data-Centric Security vs. Database-Level Security

    Database-level encryption had its origins in the 1990s and early 2000s in response to very basic risks which largely revolved around the theft of servers, backup tapes and other physical-layer assets. As noted in Verizon’s 2014, Data Breach Investigations Report (DBIR)1, threats today are far more advanced and dangerous.

    Download
  • Federal IT Applications: Assessing Government's Core Drivers

    In order to better understand the current state of external and internal-facing agency workplace applications, Government Business Council (GBC) and Riverbed undertook an in-depth research study of federal employees. Overall, survey findings indicate that federal IT applications still face a gamut of challenges with regard to quality, reliability, and performance management.

    Download
  • PIV- I And Multifactor Authentication: The Best Defense for Federal Government Contractors

    This white paper explores NIST SP 800-171 and why compliance is critical to federal government contractors, especially those that work with the Department of Defense, as well as how leveraging PIV-I credentialing with multifactor authentication can be used as a defense against cyberattacks

    Download
  • Toward A More Innovative Government

    This research study aims to understand how state and local leaders regard their agency’s innovation efforts and what they are doing to overcome the challenges they face in successfully implementing these efforts.

    Download
  • From Volume to Value: UK’s NHS Digital Provides U.S. Healthcare Agencies A Roadmap For Value-Based Payment Models

    The U.S. healthcare industry is rapidly moving away from traditional fee-for-service models and towards value-based purchasing that reimburses physicians for quality of care in place of frequency of care.

    Download
  • GBC Flash Poll: Is Your Agency Safe?

    Federal leaders weigh in on the state of information security

    Download

When you download a report, your information may be shared with the underwriters of that document.