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NASA Privacy Security Science

US Supreme Court Says NASA Background Checks OK 172

Posted by samzenpus
from the tell-us-everything dept.
coondoggie writes "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 [inappropriately violate workers' privacy]."
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US Supreme Court Says NASA Background Checks OK

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  • by elrous0 (869638) * on Wednesday January 19, 2011 @05:26PM (#34932708)

    Questions like "Are you now, or have you ever been a Communist--or voted Democrat?" "Have you ever criticized NASA, one of its employees, or a relative of one of its employees?" and "Does the movie Red Dawn give you an erection and, if not, why?" are vital in assessing the security risk of a new employee or contractor. Otherwise, they had might as well put a sign out that says "Pinkos and homosexuals welcome!"

    NASA is the first line of defense, people. Their job isn't to hire good engineers, it's to hire good AMERICANS!

    • by Frosty Piss (770223) * on Wednesday January 19, 2011 @05:30PM (#34932758)

      Their job isn't to hire good engineers, it's to hire good AMERICANS!

      Wasn't our early space program staffed with Nazis?

      • by elrous0 (869638) * on Wednesday January 19, 2011 @05:32PM (#34932780)

        You're not getting hired, buddy!

      • by hedwards (940851) on Wednesday January 19, 2011 @05:34PM (#34932802)
        Sort of, some were ex-Nazis, but point taken. That was the whole point of operation paperclip. [wikipedia.org]
      • Re: (Score:2, Funny)

        by Anonymous Coward

        yes, but they said they were very sorry and that they wouldn't do it again.

      • by 0racle (667029)
        They don't let those people in the country any more.

        I wish I kept a copy of the questionnaire to stay in the US I had to fill out, some of those questions were just hilarious.

        "Hello, I would like a green card and, oh well shoot, yes I have participated in genocide. Sorry fot taking up your time."
        • by afidel (530433)
          The reason that question is on the application is it gives them a legal reason to revoke the citizenship of anyone who is later proven to have lied on the application not in the hope that someone would answer it truthfully (though I'm not sure how that applies to groups like the lost boys who were too young to have knowingly participated in their atrocities).
          • by Obfuscant (592200)
            (though I'm not sure how that applies to groups like the lost boys who were too young to have knowingly participated in their atrocities).

            The Lost Boys participated in atrocities? You call being the victim of the murders of your parents and rape and murder of your sisters and every other female relative being "a participant"?

            Wow. Simply wow. Is english not your primary language? Or are you trying to be funny and are referring to the vampire movie?

            • by afidel (530433)
              Uh, some of the lost boys were forced to participate in atrocities against their own people by the Janjaweed. Just about any article of length or serious interview has covered this.
      • Werner Von Braun (Score:2, Interesting)

        by Anonymous Coward

        See subject line, & this:

        http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wernher_von_Braun [wikipedia.org]

        APK

        P.S.=> His background, Nazi Scientist, didn't stop him from being utilized in the name of United States Progress in Sciences & Military applications... why? Because he was a pre-eminent scientist in the field of rocketry so, especially at that time, pretty much everyone wanted what he was good at so, there you are! apk

        • by syousef (465911) on Wednesday January 19, 2011 @06:50PM (#34933682) Journal

          See subject line, & this:

          http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wernher_von_Braun [wikipedia.org]

          APK

          P.S.=> His background, Nazi Scientist, didn't stop him from being utilized in the name of United States Progress in Sciences & Military applications... why? Because he was a pre-eminent scientist in the field of rocketry so, especially at that time, pretty much everyone wanted what he was good at so, there you are! apk

          It was a question of not letting the enemy have them instead.

          Thing is, replace Soviet Union with Taliban and you still have the same issues. It's just not being handled as intelligently anymore. Instead we're letting political correctness run rife.

        • "Once the rockets are up, who cares where they come down?
          That is not my department!" says Wernher von Braun.

      • So NASA Godwinned itself right from the start?

      • by jedidiah (1196)

        > Wasn't our early space program staffed with Nazis?

        Everyone's was.

        There is a great deal of postwar tech that looks like blatant plagarism.

      • Wasn't our early space program staffed with Nazis?

        I'm fairly sure they would have passed the Communist/Democrat question....

      • And on a related note, I thought the U.S. was selling any technology developed directly with government funds (or indirectly through contracts) directly to foreign competitors anyway. Heck didn't GE just sell its best technology to China over dinner at the White House last night. So I don't understand the background checks, unless they want to weed out people who want to see Americans employed making American developed technology.
    • by DJ Jones (997846)
      Your sarcasm may be more spot-on than you think. Government agencies often ask outlandish questions to pinpoint odd personality traits that you would think would have nothing to do with the job or national security. One of the lie-detector questions (I've been told) is "Have you ever had sex with an animal?".

      You might be surprised how many people fail that.
      • by elrous0 (869638) *

        "Have you ever had sex with an animal?"

        I bet they wouldn't find it amusing if I responded with "Does your director's wife count?"

      • "Have you ever had sex with an animal?"

        That depends on your definition of "is".

      • by GooberToo (74388)

        You might be surprised how many people fail that.

        By far, most questions are not about passing or failing the background check. The primary purpose is to allow for full disclosure so as to avoid extortion down the road. Now then, the answers may dictate what level of clearance as well as the types of projects you're ultimately allowed to work on, but the answers to those types of questions, in of themselves, typically don't exclude.

        In other words they want to create this situation rather than one even worse:
        1: "If you don't give us secrets, we will let NAS

        • by idontgno (624372)

          In other words they want to create this situation rather than one even worse:
          1: "If you don't give us secrets, we will let NASA know you've had sex with animals. You'll lose your job."
          2: "They already know."
          1: "Oh. Now we must kill you because our clumsy blackmail attempt has exposed us."

          FTFY.

          OTOH, at least you died a valuable contributor to a project absolutely vital to the security of the Nation, and your odd little secrets can stay safely hidden until they're declassified and outed. Or wikileaked i

      • by dtmos (447842)

        "Have you ever had sex with an animal?"

        Aren't people animals?

      • by Nutria (679911)

        "Have you ever had sex with an animal?"

        Since humans are animals, and I'm Married With Children, the answer in an unqualified "Yes!!!"

    • by pilgrim23 (716938) on Wednesday January 19, 2011 @05:46PM (#34932980)
      Speaking as someone who has been interviewed many times by the FBI re High School friends who were seeking a "Q" clearance, I can say the questions they asked about my friends were not intrusive and related directly to the character, honesty, and truthfulness of the candidate. I realize all of these are now outmoded and tired cliche instead of esteemed and admired character traits but that is the evolution of culture right there.
      • Well, the questions that they asked me about a friend who wanted to get Q clearances were more along the lines of "How many times did you do drugs? Can you write them all down?"

        Really, you think I remember the dates, types and quantities? -- That's what they wanted. I just laughed. He got the clearance anyway. Whatever....
      • by russotto (537200)

        Speaking as someone who has been interviewed many times by the FBI re High School friends who were seeking a "Q" clearance, I can say the questions they asked about my friends were not intrusive and related directly to the character, honesty, and truthfulness of the candidate. I realize all of these are now outmoded and tired cliche instead of esteemed and admired character traits but that is the evolution of culture right there.

        There's more than one type of investigation. If you get a clearance which requ

    • by foobsr (693224)
      Their job isn't to hire good engineers, it's to hire good AMERICANS!

      As a GERMAN, I might recall the times when they where better while hiring GERMANS.

      CC.
      • If by hiring germans you mean saying yes when the germans went "Please please don't let the russians have me, I'll work for you as best I can) then yes.

    • NASA is the first line of defense, people. Their job isn't to hire good engineers, it's to hire good AMERICANS!

      Just like the ones who understand don't the difference between a yard and a metre.

  • by jeffmeden (135043) on Wednesday January 19, 2011 @05:35PM (#34932814) Homepage Journal

    ...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.

    Perhaps you meant to finish that sentence with a verb or two? I am forced to guess... Did the background checks insult their mom and kick their dog?

  • The issue in this case was not "background checks required for government positions", it was "background checks required for employees of firms with government contracts".

    • Um, sorry: TFS is misleading; TFA is not.

    • by mjwalshe (1680392)
      so its essentially the same clearance if your in the army or work for a defense contractor
      • so its essentially the same clearance if your in the army or work for a defense contractor

        Which is pretty much irrelevant, since this isn't for a security clearance, and the issue wasn't about a defense contract.

        • so its essentially the same clearance if your in the army or work for a defense contractor

          Which is pretty much irrelevant, since this isn't for a security clearance, and the issue wasn't about a defense contract.

          The rocket system-du-jour is the shuttle, which does carry military and defense related payloads from time to time..

          • by bware (148533) on Wednesday January 19, 2011 @09:01PM (#34934816) Homepage

            Caltech/JPL employees don't work on the shuttle. No one was objecting to clearances for anyone who needs one. The objection was to an open-ended background check for jobs that don't deal with sensitive data or need a clearance. The folks who do that had to get clearance anyway. The Soops just pretty much said that if you get paid by the government in any way, shape, or form, even twice removed, the government has the right, nay the duty, to investigate your background. For instance, JPL employees are not government employees: they work for Caltech (once-removed). And JPL contractors don't work for JPL, they get paid by their contracting firm (twice-removed).

            Again, JPL employees typically don't deal with classified or sensitive data; most NASA data and inventions are required by law to be released to the public eventually (pick up a copy of NASA Tech Briefs sometime). This will propagate; the DOE doesn't have to do this now, but they will. As will the DOT and DOEducation, and every other government organization and contractor. How many of you will be free from this? How many of your jobs depend on government money at some stage?

            Not in the headline is Scalia's concurring opinion, where he comes right out and says that there is no right to informational privacy. Good luck with that too.

            Adios, Fourth Amendment.

        • It takes up to a year to complete a clearance. Maybe there was something else coming up that these guys aren't going to be working on, at least not now.

          • It takes up to a year to complete a clearance. Maybe there was something else coming up that these guys aren't going to be working on, at least not now.

            This wasn't about security clearances, it was about intrusive background investigations (that required signing a very broad waiver/release that is essentially unlimited in scope and duration) for people who are in positions NASA deems "low risk"-- i.e. handle mostly scientific data that's going to be released anyway, or do editing, or engineering on completely unclassified things, or work in the cafeteria, or are janitors, etc. The waivers for clearances have a time limit that they're usable for, but this

        • by Sarten-X (1102295)
          Except that despite budget cuts, cancelled programs, and a general lack of progress, NASA is still one of the most impressive things the US has. We put a man on the moon, damnit! Fifty years ago, sure, but we did it. There are billions of people paying attention to everything NASA does. One little defect in the right part at the right time, and the USA gets an internationally-visible slap in the face. That's an interesting prospect for hostile nations to consider. Plant an operative in the right company, an
          • by Obfuscant (592200)
            That's an interesting prospect for hostile nations to consider. Plant an operative in the right company, and that right part can have its defect right on schedule.

            You know, that Feynman guy did seem to know a bit too much about the failure of that shuttle SRB for a civilian. He was a foreigner, wasn't he? A name like "Feynman" has to be foreign. And I hear he went around breaking into locked filing cabinets at LLNL, or was it LANL?

            I'm suspicious, and I don't care what other people think.

          • by Nutria (679911)

            We put a man on the moon, damnit! Fifty years ago

            No wonder NASA can't build anything worth shit anymore: our "best and brightest" can't subtract 4 digit numbers!!

            Idiocracy [imdb.com] here we come...

        • by The Dancing Panda (1321121) on Wednesday January 19, 2011 @07:01PM (#34933786)
          Yeah it should be nothing like a security clearance for a defense contract. They're just shooting giant missiles with possibly nuclear payloads into the sky every couple months. I mean why even background check anyone?
          • by Anonymous Coward on Wednesday January 19, 2011 @11:21PM (#34935816)

            You missed the part where the issue being decided was whether or not employees termed low risk (i.e., have no access to mission systems) had to submit to an open-ended investigation. My wife doesn't even have access to the computer room with her machine, much less any flight stuff, and she had to "volunteer" to be investigated more thoroughly than for a DoD secret (trust me, I know). It's the ability of the government to simultaneously call someone low risk and demand an intrusive background check that's so... impressive.

  • by dkleinsc (563838) on Wednesday January 19, 2011 @05:48PM (#34933020) Homepage

    Did you seriously expect the current incarnation of the US Supreme Court to do anything other than uphold more government intrusion? The only interesting part of this case is that it was basically unanimous.

  • That's Too Bad (Score:5, Interesting)

    by BJ_Covert_Action (1499847) on Wednesday January 19, 2011 @05:54PM (#34933084) Homepage Journal
    A significant portion of the space concentration aerospace engineers that I graduated with from Cal Poly specifically avoided the defense megacorps when hunting for jobs (Lockheed, Boeing, Northrup) precisely because they did not want to work for an organization that had that kind of access into their personal lives. Many of those folk saw JPL as one of the 'civil' workplaces where they could find a job without having to deal with all of the security clearance BS. After this ruling, I am pretty sure that even more talented upcoming engineers will specifically avoid working for JPL (opting, instead, for places like Loral and SpaceX).

    I would wager that this ruling had to due with ITAR technology though. ITAR agreements tend to apply to just about any space technology in the U.S. (which, incidentally, is hampering progress to a degree). So exposure to many advanced technologies must be heavily regulated and monitored. Hell, I plan to take a tour of JPL Tuesday, and I will be required to show proof of citizenship just to enter the facility; a facility that is entirely and completely funded by our tax dollars.
    • by timeOday (582209)

      A significant portion of the space concentration aerospace engineers that I graduated with from Cal Poly specifically avoided the defense megacorps when hunting for jobs (Lockheed, Boeing, Northrup) precisely because they did not want to work for an organization that had that kind of access into their personal lives.

      It's kind of a bummer, but engineers (speaking broadly, including e.g. C.S. but especially aerospace) can't do much R&D without making that particular deal with the devil. The vast majori

    • After this ruling, I am pretty sure that even more talented upcoming engineers will specifically avoid working for JPL (opting, instead, for places like Loral and SpaceX).

      Probably just as well. NASA has been heading for a political cliff for the longest time. The senator for the state that builds the solid rocket boosters (SRBs) is the one that holds NASA's purse strings. So, no SRBs, no money for NASA. Use SRBs and the launch vehicle is too expensive.
    • by Nutria (679911)

      precisely because they did not want to work for an organization that had that kind of access into their personal lives.

      These smarter-than-everyone 22 year olds must not have realized that taking some drugs or being gay does *not* preclude you from getting Clearance...

      • by AK Marc (707885)
        It's not that they think they can't get clearance, it's that they don't want to work somewhere where that would be required.
        • by Nutria (679911)

          For some reason, that instantly brought to mind the Merle Haggard lyrics "They love our milk an' honey,/But they preach about some other way of livin'."

    • opting, instead, for places like Loral and SpaceX

      So, this is good news then. The security clearance thing is merely symptomatic of how top-heavy NASA has become. I used to be bummed by this kind of stuff, the Shuttle cancellation, etc. but then I saw what Elon Musk was accomplishing.

      It's sad to see NASA decline and go, but we'll come out of this stronger on the other end.

  • Well do you want Barney "Let's crash the rocket into the White House and kill the President" Gumble working at NASA?

  • by shatfield (199969) on Wednesday January 19, 2011 @06:03PM (#34933206)

    A friend of mine used to be a contractor to NASA and he used to tell me stories about how you could get into trouble if you queried the wrong column in a database table. His background check was so extensive that it went on for 3 months, while he just sat around and brought home paychecks for doing absolutely NOTHING.

    He also said that if you pushed the wrong number on the elevator and got off on the wrong floor, you would be interrogated and possibly fired. If you did it more than once, you would definitely be fired.

    Those gubment folks are pretty strict.

    • by vlm (69642)

      His background check was so extensive that it went on for 3 months, while he just sat around and brought home paychecks for doing absolutely NOTHING.

      In the US Army in the early 90s, we certainly were not allowed to do our job, but we did not do "nothing". I became quite skilled and the operation of a lawnmower, broom, and lawn rake. Luckily for me if you signed up early, the army began the research early, so I only had about one weeks experience.

  • As someone who just turned down a job offer at a "big company" because I felt the background check was becoming too invasive, I now worry about how much control big employers have in defining candidates' eligibility to be employable.

    It was much more about security theater than security. And, I'm troubled that the definition of employability is now the willingness to send one's tax records to outsourced fact checkers on the other side of the world.

    • right on brother! I, too, have turned down a HANDFUL of offers due to invasive employer tactics (driving record checks (for software? really?), employment/slavery contracts that are too 1-sided, being told who your OWN references will be, stuff like that).

      companies have been very surprised to see me walk away from their offers. yes, in this economy, too.

      its not easy but for as long as I can, I intend to resist those companies who cross the line. we know what that is and we can tell when the company is j

  • Anyone who has worked for the government, a contractor to the government and is/was employed by a company has had a background check done. You don't think said entities simply file away your personal information, do you? You've seen the many stories on /. about people not being hired or getting fired because of their Facebook/My Space/etc account. Well, you also invite the government/employer to use the rest of the information they collect from you to find out who you really are and not the prim and prop

  • NASA has a sort of close working relationship with the military. Sort of like the Department of Energy and nuclear weapons. See http://www.energy.gov/nationalsecurity/nuclearsecurity.htm [energy.gov] for more info. NASA often develops and tests tech that the military wants. The military looks at space as the "high ground" critical for national security.

    Some people think that parts of the DOE and NASA budgets should be considered part of the US defense budget.

  • The Shuttle is retired, and the replacement launch vehicle has been canceled, what is there for NASA to hire people for? I Can't see the new Congress giving them any more money either...

  • As for the argument that a background check is necessary and why should you object if you have nothing to hide, for a position in the government that requires you to hide information seems a bit uneven in concept. I guess its true if they do not find anything about you they should definitely hire you because, either your clean or your already good at hiding information.

    • by PPH (736903)
      Maybe I don't want my neighbors to know I'm working for NASA. I mean, they can't even land on Mars reliably. And I've got a rep to protect.
  • A plaintiff's view (Score:5, Informative)

    by ScottMaxwell (108831) on Wednesday January 19, 2011 @09:05PM (#34934844) Homepage

    (Disclaimer: I'm a named plaintiff in this lawsuit.)

    I'm only about halfway through the ruling, but it's hard for me to know where to begin criticizing it. Here are some choice bits:

    * The ruling says that we shouldn't be worried because the government promises to protect our privacy. That's fatally absurd in the era of Wikileaks: if the government can't keep its own secrets secret, what are the odds that it'll keep my secrets secret?

    * The ruling says that the government needn't show that its questions must be crafted as narrowly as possible to further its interests. This seems to ignore an interesting distinction between the government and private employers: the government can now ask you anything it wants, and jail you if it doesn't like the answers. Worse, the government can change its mind about what you get in trouble for, as a lot of people discovered unpleasantly in the 1950s, so something that's perfectly safe to admit now can get you in trouble a decade from now.

    * It's a special irony that Justice Thomas held (in a minority view) that there's no right to informational privacy at all. (Fortunately, the majority explicitly refused to rule on that point.) Perhaps Justice Thomas would like to tell us what really went on between him and Anita Hill, then? Or maybe privacy is good for the gander, in his view, but not so much for the goose.

    * Remember that this ruling is only on a preliminary injunction. We haven't even gone to trial yet. The legal system is as intricate as only a centuries-old piece of code can be, and we have a long way to go yet. (Contrary to a highly misleading internal all-hands JPL email message issued after the ruling, incidentally.)

    I have lots more to say, but I'm going to meet with our lawyers now. Grr.

    • * It's a special irony that Justice Thomas held (in a minority view) that there's no right to informational privacy at all. (Fortunately, the majority explicitly refused to rule on that point.) Perhaps Justice Thomas would like to tell us what really went on between him and Anita Hill, then? Or maybe privacy is good for the gander, in his view, but not so much for the goose.

      Just releasing the sources of money for his wife's lobbying organization (Liberty Central) would be a good start... there's more than a little potential for conflict of interest there.

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