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.

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