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Around Town: Background checks not worth $6 million

September 22, 2010|By Anita Susan Brenner

On Oct. 5, the United States Supreme Court will hear oral arguments in National Aeronautics and Space Administration v. Nelson, the JPL background check "informational privacy" case.

The case concerns the scope of background checks for contractors who do not need classified security clearances and who do not work on sensitive projects. One issue is whether JPL can ask employees whether they have received counseling or treatment for drug use.

The lead plaintiff in the case is Robert M. Nelson, Ph.D., a senior research scientist at JPL. His motivation is genuine.

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"We are very inspired and deeply grateful for the outstanding support we have received from such a diverse constituency," he said. "This case is not about 28 JPL employees; it is about the fundamental values of a civilized society. A free society cannot permit the government to have unfettered access to every intimate detail of one's personal life."

According to the plaintiffs, JPL has budgeted $6 million to conduct these background checks, which are the product of some Homeland Security requirements.

The Electronic Frontier Foundation ("EFF"), which filed an amicus brief, summed the facts up as follows:

"This case arises from NASA's decision in 2007 to institute background checks of contractor employees pursuant to the National Agency Check with Inquiries ('NACI') guidelines. Respondents are longtime employees of the California Institute of Technology ('Caltech') who work at the Jet Propulsion Lab ('JPL') housing NASA's robotic spacecraft laboratory. By NASA's own admission, respondents are 'low-risk' employees and do not work on classified projects."

The scientists argue that JPL/NASA's background checks violate a constitutional right to informational privacy. The checks require a signed waiver, which remains in effect for two years after an employee leaves JPL, which permits the investigators to question all former neighbors, ex-spouses, co-workers about absolutely everything about the employee.

There are no guidelines for maintenance of the information obtained by the investigators. Maybe everyone should just join Facebook and blog every ten minutes. That might be simpler.

And it would cost less than the $6 million budgeted by JPL.

If we put our brains together, we might come up with some alternative uses for the $6 million. Cancer research? Superfund clean up?

The case progressed and the Ninth Circuit ruled in favor of the scientists. JPL was defended by former Solicitor General Elena Kagan. Kagan petitioned the U.S. Supreme Court for certiorari. Kagan is now the newest justice on the U.S. Supreme Court and has recused herself from ruling on the case.

And now, half of La Cañada Flintridge awaits the oral argument, and the ruling.

Shades of Big Brother? Free T-shirts in support of the JPL contractors are available at http://www.hspd12jpl.org.

ANITA SUSAN BRENNER is a longtime La Cañada Flintridge resident and an attorney with Law Offices of Torres and Brenner in Pasadena. E-mail her at anitasusan.brenner@yahoo.com.

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