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JPL Scientists Take NASA To the Supreme Court 238

Posted by timothy
from the ask-kozinksi dept.
CheshireCatCO writes "Scientists at NASA's Jet Propulsion Lab, concerned about background checks now required of federal employees, sued NASA to suspend the checks back in 2007. The case has now worked its way up to the Supreme Court. At stake: whether all federal employees can be forced to undergo open-ended background checks whether or not the employee has exposure to classified or sensitive information. The background checks, which can include interviewing people from employees' pasts such as landlords and teachers, may seek, among other things, sexual histories."
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JPL Scientists Take NASA To the Supreme Court

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  • Go JPL (Score:5, Insightful)

    by colinrichardday (768814) <colin.day.6@hotmail.com> on Saturday September 25, 2010 @07:44PM (#33700002)

    I hope the JPL scientists win!

  • It's about blackmail (Score:5, Informative)

    by Sir_Lewk (967686) <sirlewk&gmail,com> on Saturday September 25, 2010 @07:45PM (#33700008)

    The "sexual history" questions will unfortunately remain relevant in background checks for highly important/secret positions so long as sexual history related topics remain highly taboo in society. The (intended) purpose of these questions is to determine if the applicant has anything in their past that would make particularly them subjective to blackmail.

    They leave a bad taste in my mouth too, which is why I avoid those sorts of jobs...

    • by Anonymous Coward on Saturday September 25, 2010 @07:51PM (#33700062)

      They leave a bad taste in my mouth too, which is why I avoid those sorts of jobs

      Said Sir_Lewk to the NSA job interviewer, who had asked about Sir_Lewk's sexual history.

    • by Dyinobal (1427207) on Saturday September 25, 2010 @07:58PM (#33700098)
      You know I never really thought of it like that, damn I hope that raw chicken doesn't talk.
      • Re: (Score:2, Funny)

        by sumdumass (711423)

        Well, you choked it.. Right? Shouldn't be talking much at all now.

    • by Nyder (754090) on Saturday September 25, 2010 @08:01PM (#33700118) Journal

      The "sexual history" questions will unfortunately remain relevant in background checks for highly important/secret positions so long as sexual history related topics remain highly taboo in society. The (intended) purpose of these questions is to determine if the applicant has anything in their past that would make particularly them subjective to blackmail.

      They leave a bad taste in my mouth too, which is why I avoid those sorts of jobs...

      Maybe people should just stop be ashamed by crap they do and not worry about it?

      We all have gotten together with people we didn't want people to know. Chances are, people already know and don't care.

      Seriously, blackmail only works if you let it.

      You want to blackmail me? go for it. and good luck!

      • Re: (Score:2, Flamebait)

        by LWATCDR (28044)

        maybe people should not do things they are ashamed of?

        • Blackmail isn't always about things you personally feel ashamed of - I've had friends who got fired from their jobs for being gay (hey, she didn't know her boss was a homophobe when she started working there), and there are people whose families would freak out if they knew.

          One of the TLAs, probably NSA, once wanted to hire a guy who was gay, some time after it had stopped being illegal in most of the US. The deal they made was that he had to come out to his family, so it couldn't be used for blackmail. I

          • Re: (Score:3, Informative)

            by LWATCDR (28044)

            That has been the policy since the 80s when I had to get clearance.
            I was only 19 at the time and working for a contractor in college. It was interesting. They had to interview my girlfriend and her parents.
            Yes if you are going to be in that situation you can not have any secrets. Frankly nothing will change that. If you want to do that kind of work you have to deal with it.
            Just like you can not work as construction worker on a high rise if you are terrified of heights.

        • by corbettw (214229)

          I find it's easier (and more fun!) not to be ashamed by the things (and people!) I do.

        • by AK Marc (707885)
          I've never been drunk. I've never illegally used drugs, short of sharing prescriptions with immediate family when we ended up with the same illnesses at the same time and didn't feel like getting more of the same thing from another trip to the doctors (not antibiotics, of course, and never to use the item other than as specified, though technically a federal crime). But I believe that drugs should be legal. That's right, I think black tar heroin (or crack or whatever) should be sold in tens of thousands
      • by vux984 (928602) on Saturday September 25, 2010 @08:11PM (#33700162)

        We all have gotten together with people we didn't want people to know.

        Infidelity and other sexual indiscretions can easily damage or even ruin marriages and political careers. It doesn't really matter whether or not YOU are ashamed of what YOU did. What matters is what EVERYONE else thinks.

        Blackmail will continue to work as long as your spouse and/or the voters care about what YOU have been up to.

        • That's not what we're talking about here. We aren't talking about a highly public figure. We're talking about an employee who might want to keep something secret, like porn preferences.

          If you don't care if the public knows about your porn preferences then blackmail won't work. It's not like there's anyone who will vote you out of your cubicle if they discover your porn preferences.. If your spouse doesn't already know your porn preferences then you probably have some issues you need to work out.
          • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

            by vux984 (928602)

            That's not what we're talking about here. We aren't talking about a highly public figure.

            Right, so my comments about political career misses the mark a bit in this context, but the spouse/family aspect is still right on target.

            We're talking about an employee who might want to keep something secret, like porn preferences.

            Not really. Unless the porn preferences are illegal its not going to matter all that much to most people. I doubt anyone has ever really been successfully blackmailed with the fact that they

            • "Revelations of infidelity and bisexuality/homosexuality will still be effective blackmail though, because they can still trash your marriage / family / personal relationships - whether you are ashamed or not."

              Well bisexuality/homosexuality would be no use whatsoever for blackmail against people who turn up to the pride parade every year.

              For a GOP senator on the other hand or someone who's "prayed the gay away" it would still be effective.

              So weather you are ashamed or not can make a big difference.

              • Bisexual.. How is that "blackmailable"?

                I'm most likely bisexual, though I have yet to be with a guy yet. I am polyamorous. My direct GF has another guy as well as well as 2 GF's. Right now, four of the five of us live together.

                However, it does NOT mean we're easy. They are committed relationships we have to each other. I'd do pretty much anything for them, as they would for me. It also means that for anybody to date one of us, we all agree.

                And I even told my grandmother, who is extreme right wing Christian.

                • And I even told my grandmother, who is extreme right wing Christian. She was happy that I was happy.

                  And that's where you immunise yourself against blackmail.
                  If on the other hand you for some reason decided you absolutely had to keep it from your family or some such then it would be great for blackmail.

                  the point is that anything you're hiding from someone is blackmail material.
                  And if you can be blackmailed easily then you're a security risk.

                  there's nothing special about being gay/bi.
                  It's merely a common thing people hide from their family/others.
                  Someone who's completely out of the closet has nothing to be

        • Blackmail will continue to work as long as your spouse and/or the voters care about what YOU have been up to.

          Slight correction: Blackmail will only continue to work to the degree that you care more about what other people think ('other people' includes spouse/voters/etc) about your past sexual history, than whatever the blackmailer is demanding. Although it is true that most politicians make themselves slaves to public opinion (kinda hard to get the job if you don't), I would avoid the assumption that all married people are ruled so absolutely by the cares/concerns/whims of their spouses. If you don't give a shit

          • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

            by vux984 (928602)

            If you don't give a shit if your spouse finds out, even if your spouse would care a lot about it themselves, there is no leverage to blackmail.

            If you didn't give a shit you wouldn't be keeping it a secret in the first place.
            The fact that you are keeping it secret indicates that you put some value in it being a secret.

            But I agree that 'how much value' you put into it remaining a secret is a personal valuation, that isn't directly tied to how upset they will be. ... but if you value your spouse highly, and yo

      • by Sir_Lewk (967686) <sirlewk&gmail,com> on Saturday September 25, 2010 @08:14PM (#33700188)

        More accurately, people should stop caring about the crap other people do. Blackmail works if the people around you (your boss, your wife/family, your coworkers, your friends, your neighbors...) let it.

        The spouse one is a big one. There can be big financial consequences involved there.

        • by scrod98 (609124)
          Don't forget that adultery (and homosexuality) are against the rules for all active military personnel. They can lose their jobs over it.
        • by JustOK (667959)

          sounds like you care alot about what other people do.

        • by Jafafa Hots (580169) on Sunday September 26, 2010 @04:51AM (#33701952) Homepage Journal

          This would require that people aren't what they are - ignorant, hypocritical, self-centered, immature idiots who hold every other person on the planet to a standard orders of magnitude higher than that to which they hold themselves.

          We are a country that impeached a president over a consensual sex act.
          (Oh don't start whining wingnuts, yes it was technically for "lying" about a sex act after his perfectly legal consensual and private sex life was the subject of a multi-year, multimillion dollar taxpayer funded investigation. You should thank me instead of whining - the reality actually makes you look MORE pathetic, craven and childish.)

          We are a nation of six year olds.

      • Maybe people should just stop be ashamed by crap they do and not worry about it?

        You might brag to everyone about whom you've slept with/are sleeping with but some people (especially women) consider their sex lives private if they had nothing to be worried about. The other part that made them nervous was the "unending" part of it considering that they never get near classified material.

        • by Ironsides (739422)
          Just because you never get near classified material doesn't mean you don't get near material that shouldn't be released. A lot of information is stamped FOUO (For Official Use Only) and enough of that compiled together can equal classified.
      • by dbIII (701233) on Saturday September 25, 2010 @08:26PM (#33700254)

        Seriously, blackmail only works if you let it.

        It's not just blackmail. Stupid HR people may rarely work, but when they do it can be preventing people from getting jobs due to trivialities on their files. You'll even get a "40 and still a virgin - can't have him working here" response if that sort of thing is on file. Anything other than what the HR people consider ideal from their own personal background puts you at a disadvantage if it's on file. The only real answer is to never let them see this stuff if it is collected.

        • by rickb928 (945187)

          Preyty stereotypical, considering the JPL scientists are annoyed not at HR, but Security.

          And Security works a LOT. Your complaint might be that they work too much.

          And that makes sense how?

          • The HR people get to read the stuff security collects. Something that will get past security as being unimportant suddenly becomes a reason for you not to have a job.
            The primary stupidity of security getting irrelevant information still applies, but I thought I'd mention the above as long term consequences from things that should be private trivia.
      • by shentino (1139071)

        Since the feds can't read your mind they have to play it safe.

        If you have any secrets, they will assume someone can use them to blackmail you.

        They have no idea of knowing how strong you are.

    • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

      by Anonymous Coward

      The "sexual history" questions will unfortunately remain relevant in background checks for highly important/secret positions

      The question is whether intrusive background checks are appropriate for scientists working on unclassified projects. I don't see what the "importance" of the project has to do with it. If they don't have access to national security secrets, why should the government be allowed to go on a fishing expedition through their private lives?

    • by Concerned Onlooker (473481) on Saturday September 25, 2010 @08:05PM (#33700134) Homepage Journal

      "The (intended) purpose of these questions is to determine if the applicant has anything in their past that would make particularly them subjective to blackmail."

      Yes, but blackmail for what? The latest images from Mars? The shoestring budget numbers for a project? The motor control code for actuators? I think people have the perception that what goes on at JPL is top secret stuff when in fact just about all of it gets released to the public sooner than later. We're talking research-y stuff here. Not DOD. And where people might be working on DOD stuff then the security clearances come into play.

      These abusive background checks might make a little more sense for those pursuing a secret clearance, but for the day-to-day activities at JPL they are just that. Abusive.

      • by Sir_Lewk (967686)

        I'm not commenting about the use of such interviews for the positions in this particular situation. I don't know the details, and can't be bothered to RTFA...

        I'm just explaining what the purpose of those interview questions is at all, because it's something that may not be immediately obvious to all readers.

      • by jimrthy (893116)

        I suspect the entire point is to hide the signal in the noise.

        Then again, I suspect exactly the seem from /. I seem to be turning slightly paranoid.

      • Re: (Score:2, Insightful)

        by Reaperducer (871695)

        You make the assumption that someone working at JPL will always work at JPL. People get transferred to other jobs within thier organizations all the time. And there are parts of NASA that do work for DOD (putting secret satellites into orbit leaps to mind, there are probably many others).

        You also make the assumption that JPL never does any research for or fills requests for any other government agency, or that the expertise of its staff are never called on for use in other departments.

        It doesn't take a lo

        • by jackbird (721605) on Saturday September 25, 2010 @08:41PM (#33700340)
          That's what actual security clearances are for, and not the subject of this lawsuit.
        • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

          by UnknowingFool (672806)

          You make the assumption that someone working at JPL will always work at JPL. People get transferred to other jobs within thier organizations all the time. And there are parts of NASA that do work for DOD (putting secret satellites into orbit leaps to mind, there are probably many others).

          You are making the assumption that your security clearance requirement (and subsequent check) never changes when your job changes. When you get a job with a higher clearance requirement, there will be a check. If you don't have any clearance, you will be investigated for one.

        • by Nyeerrmm (940927) on Saturday September 25, 2010 @10:30PM (#33700774)

          No. I work at JPL. I've done classified work before. Just because I have done it in the past or might in the future implies nothing about whether I should have a background check for my current job. If I were to do classified work in my current job, I would need to regain my clearance. This is the same as if I decided to go work minimum wage at a fast food chain then went back to classified work.

          Though I dont care for my own sake, since I've already gone through it for legitimate reasons, making all employees here go through it is absurd. My best understanding (I started well after they stopped issuing the badges, so I'm not certain of the details) is that it was an unassuming attempt to put a generic federal badging procedure, which normally applies to DOD contractors, for which the background check makes sense. However it should not apply to JPL or other NASA centers, and to me this lawsuit is against the idea that more security is always necessarily better, and should be applied without consideration for the civil liberties of federal contractors.

        • You make the assumption that someone working at JPL will always work at JPL. People get transferred to other jobs within thier organizations all the time. And there are parts of NASA that do work for DOD (putting secret satellites into orbit leaps to mind, there are probably many others).

          You seem to be under the impression that JPL is part of NASA. It isn't; it's part of CalTech, and has a contract from NASA to conduct America's unmanned exploration of space. How do I know? I know because I worked at J

        • by chrisG23 (812077)
          No, the assumption is not made. If someone is working at JPL at a position that does not require a security clearance, then they should be required to submit to a security clearance if and only if they are being moved to a position that actually requires one. They can take one voluntarily ahead of time if they see themselves moving into a sensitive area in the future (as these things can take as long a year to go through depending on how deep the background check has to go) but if they do not aspire to that
        • Getting a security clearance on spec is worthless and wasteful.

          Suppose Joe the new hire comes on board to do programming. He does not need security clearance but he gets one anyway, after passing all the tests and checks. Good for Joe. Fine upstanding citizen who doesn't speed, drink, or eat junk food (yes a fictional person, so what).

          Five years down the line, he hasn't needed his clearance but suddenly he has the chance to move to a new position that does need clearance. He's got it, right? He's all

      • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

        by ChipMonk (711367)
        If JPL didn't care about who a job candidate slept with 20 years ago, that job candidate would be a lot less likely to become a blackmail target.
      • by Yvanhoe (564877)
        The ssh login code that allows sabotage of a launch at the last moment...
    • by Zocalo (252965)
      I guess it kind of depends on whether or not you have anything about yourself that you would prefer your employer not to know and could potentially be blackmailed over. Would, for instance, an openly gay person who could therefore not be blackmailed over being outed fare any better than someone who claimed to be heterosexual but could, conceivably, still be in the closet?
      • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

        That's his point.

        If one is in the closet, it is usually for a pretty good reason. When you have people in this society that will literally get violent if they find that one is gay, one would have to be very careful who he tells in order to not get killed. Gays are still being murdered in this society. And if you get a boss who's belief system thinks that homosexuality is an affront to God or something like that, he has to cover themselves to have employment.

        Everyone has something to hide - or I can make an

        • by Zocalo (252965)
          That's not quite what I meant though. One aspect of the vetting is to determine whether the subject might be blackmailed over their sexual orientation, so which of these candidates is statistically the least susceptible to such blackmail:
          • Candidate A, who is openly gay
          • Candidate B, who claims to be heterosexual and nothing to contradict this was found in vetting

          Candidate A clearly cannot be blackmailed over a threat to expose their sexual preferences, but Candidate B could be either telling the truth

        • by shentino (1139071)

          Maybe sexual orientation should be like race...illegal to discriminate against.

    • When you are talking about giving someone access to classified information, yes you need to make sure they have no skeletons in their closet, nothing that can be used as leverage. This means checking mundane things like credit history, and more taboo things like sexual history. The investigators for an SSBI doesn't care if you are gay, they are if you care that you are gay. If you are in the closet, well maybe someone could use that as leverage. If you are happy with who you are, no problem.

      However, I don't

    • I just don't keep my porn preferences particularly secret. I mean, I don't go advertising them but it's not like I'm going to keep it very secret if someone asks. Their reaction makes telling them worthwhile.
    • in addition to blackmail, they might want to check if you're prone to talked about work.

      Just off the top of my head... A monogamous married man is less of a risk than someone who bring a new girl home each nite in a drunken haze. The drumken haze guy could leave document around the house, tell random secrets, maybe gloat about some secret project, be tempted to let a hot Chinese spy into his home...

      While a wife might find stuff out, she'll be less likely to spread it around knowing the husband's predicamen

    • Any humor regarding sex. Or anything approaching honesty wrt sex, for that matter. It's not exactly new as a cultural phenomenon, but it still remains very fucked up, in the irrational sense. It's getting worse, in the national/media/political/legal sense. In the local/trust_friends/humor sense, perhaps better - but we don't make policy, and much prefer to stay un-advertised.

      To anyone who can't parse that paragraph, well, you just ain't Old enough yet.

      Sorry for the topical condens

  • At stake: whether all federal employees can be forced to undergo open-ended background checks

    Really? I don't see that in the questions being answered by the supreme court. [supremecourt.gov]

    • Re: (Score:2, Insightful)

      by Anonymous Coward

      At stake: whether all federal employees can be forced to undergo open-ended background checks

      Really? I don't see that in the questions being answered by the supreme court. [supremecourt.gov]

      That would be question 2 in the link you provided.

  • We need to rethink our entire foreign policy, rather than rely on unsustainable, unworkable "solutions" of restricting access to information and then panicking if that information gets out there, we need to make sure that the world won't use that information against us.
  • I'd be perfect (Score:2, Informative)

    by JeanBaptiste (537955)

    My sexual history fits on a post-it note.

    • by robot256 (1635039)
      I don't even need a post-it note.
      • by ChipMonk (711367)
        Mine would fit on a 16G flash drive.
        • by robot256 (1635039)
          A regular drive, a large styled one, or one of those micro card-size ones? Would make for interesting office conversation with it hanging round your neck, anyway. Dunno what you'd fill 16gigs with though. :P
        • by toddestan (632714)

          That's not all that much porn by 2010 standards.

    • by istartedi (132515)

      Dude, we fit pretty much the entire history of calculus on something not much larger than a post-it note. We were permitted one 3 by 5 index card of notes in some exams! You'd be amazed at what you can fit in such a small space when it really counts.

    • hell, I can use just four letters.

      (no, the letters don't happen to be N O N E)

  • Suspect? (Score:2, Insightful)

    by Anonymous Coward

    Scientists at NASA's Jet Propulsion Lab, concerned about background checks now required of federal employees, sued NASA to suspect the checks back in 2007.

    I always suspected the checks. Oh wait, did you mean suspend?

  • by Required Snark (1702878) on Saturday September 25, 2010 @08:31PM (#33700280)
    Catch-22 http://www.sheilaomalley.com/?p=7225 [sheilaomalley.com]

    Almost overnight the Glorious Loyalty Oath Crusade was in full flower, and Captain Black was enraptured to discover himself spearheading it. He had really hit on something. All the enlisted men and officers on combat duty had to sign a loyalty oath to get their map cases from the intelligence tent, a second loyalty oath to receive their flak suits and parachutes from the parachute tent, a third loyalty oath for Lieutenant Balkington, the motor vehicle officer, to be allowed to ride from the squadron to the airfield in one of the trucks. Every time they turned around there was another loyalty oath to be signed. They signed a loyalty oath to get their pay from the finance officer, to obtain their PX supplies, to have their hair cut by the Italian barbers. To Captain Black, every officer who supported his Glorious Loyalty Oath Crusade was a competitor, and he planned and plotted twenty-four hours a day to keep one step ahead. He would stand second to none in his devotion to country. When other officers had followed his urging and introduced loyalty oaths of their own, he went them one better by making every son of a bitch who came to his intelligence tent sign two loyalty oaths, then three, then four; then he introduced the pledge of allegiance, and after that “The Star-Spangled Banner,” one chorus, two choruses, three choruses, four choruses. Each time Captain Black forged ahead of his competitors, he swung upon them scornfully for their failure to follow his example. Each time they followed his example, he retreated with concern and racked his brain for some new stratagem that would enable him to turn upon them scornfully again.

    Without realizing how it had come about, the combat men in the squadron discovered themselves dominated by the administrators appointed to serve them. They were bullied, insulted, harassed and shoved about all day long by one after the other. When they voiced objection, Captain Black replied that people who were loyal would not mind signing all the loyalty oaths they had to. To anyone who questioned the effectiveness of the loyalty oaths, he replied that people who really did owe allegiance to their country would be proud to pledge it as often as he forced them to. And to anyone who questioned the morality, he replied that “The Star-Spangled Banner” was the greatest piece of music ever composed. The more loyalty oaths a person signed, the more loyal he was; to Captain Black it was as simple as that, and he had Corporal Kolodny sign hundreds with his name each day so that he could always prove he was more loyal than anyone else.

  • Nothing could be worse than the terrorists gaining critical strategic information regarding Saturn. We should just encase all of CalTech in amber just to make sure there are no leaks.
  • Suitability Matrix (Score:4, Informative)

    by CheshireCatCO (185193) on Saturday September 25, 2010 @09:02PM (#33700424) Homepage

    By the way, here's a copy of the suitability matrix [hspd12jpl.org].

  • Sometimes those background checks are run without employees having a clue. I am of the belief that even for private sector jobs that our government is involved in those checks. And they are not always for positions that one might suspect that they would be run. I found out about this as a consequence of a burglary in which files were found by various employees.
    And there is some good that can come from th

  • How you can help (Score:5, Informative)

    by ScottMaxwell (108831) on Sunday September 26, 2010 @03:28AM (#33701740) Homepage

    As a named plaintiff in this lawsuit, I'm awfully happy to see the widespread support here on Slashdot. I'd like to be able to keep driving Mars rovers around without having to sign a form that says NASA can interrogate my priest, my doctor, my lawyer, my accountant, and my ISP to make sure I'm sufficiently uninteresting.

    If you'd like to help, please consider donating [hspd12jpl.org] to keep our amazing legal team afloat. The privacy you save could be your own. Thank you!

    • Re:How you can help (Score:5, Informative)

      by Geoffrey.landis (926948) on Sunday September 26, 2010 @11:22AM (#33703420) Homepage

      An important thing to note is that the administration lied about the background checks. They stated that invasive personal background checks were required by a presidential directive called "HSPD-12". This, as it turns out, is incorrect.

      The full text of HSPD-12 [dhs.gov] is available on the web. In fact, what it says is that the government identification cards should be difficult to forge. As a part of that, it said that the government should verify the identification of its employees before issuing identification cards. That's it. The only background check required it "check their ID."

  • by hex0D (1890162) on Sunday September 26, 2010 @02:14PM (#33704382)
    Jack Parsons, one of the founders of the JPL, was heavily involved with sex magick and other weirdness with L Ron Hubbard & Aliester Crowley. It's pretty hard to imagine him passing a thorough background check. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Jack_Parsons [wikipedia.org]

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