Compliance and Legal
It looks like the contract employees over at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Lab in Pasadena, California don’t like the government digging around in their personal information when the need just isn’t there. Or when a background check is stepping over what they perceive is their personal rights.
As everyone knows, after 9/11 the government went on a homeland security binge and laws were passed that normally would, well, just not. This case puts the U.S. governments perceived right to investigate the personal lives of low-risk contractors who access federal facilities against employees’ Constitutional right to informational privacy.
A JPL scientist and plaintiff in this landmark case, Dennis Byrnes, thought back to that day three years ago. A no-questions deadline by Caltech (manages JPL for NASA) required they comply with a government Homeland Security Act Directive, or lose their job.
“On that Friday afternoon,” said Byrnes, “many people were sitting in their division manager’s office being told that if they didn’t sign the release right then, they’d be out of a job.”
Mr Byrnes who was in Italy at the time, knew he would be facing the exact same situation when he returned. So…in 2007 Mr. Byrnes, along with 27 other JPL employees filed a lawsuit against the United States government claiming the policy invaded their right to privacy. This also included unnecessary probes, including queries about financial, medical, and drug histories. On Oct 5, 2007, the plaintiffs suit was bolstered with an injunction from the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals in San Francisco. Of course the government immediately appealed.
There are no limits,” Byrne said of the policy. “If they investigate something and find they need more information and come back with a release for full medical records and you refuse – you’d lose your job. Once you sign into the system you’ve given them carte blanche , and that’s absolutely inappropriate.”
Mr. Byrnes, then added a very interesting fact that NASA has clarified 97% of its employees as low risk. To me, this very clearly signals the government wanting to know rather than needing to know such personal information.
“Everything we do is unclassified, immediately open to the public, and there is no security involved in terms of national security,” he said.
“It’s too frequent to reduce it to a political battle – it’s not a Liberal-Conservative thing at all,” he said, adding, “it’s a case about government intruding through background investigations beyond the purpose needed.”
NASA is being represented by the Department of Justice, which declined to give commentary on the case. However, the government has classified the policy as “minimally intrusive”, and it’s employee background check procedure that civil service employees already have to deal with.
Dan Stormer, an attorney for the JPL employees, frames the issue as an indefensible violation of privacy: “The government in this case is incredibly intrusive into the private lives of individuals with no good reason – these are employees who have worked for as much as 30 years with not a single problem, and suddenly they have to know what things they buy at the video store, where they shop, what they’re medical treatment is, if they’ve seen a psychologist and if so looking at the record – it’s just incredibly overreaching.”
I personally think this policy is indeed government overreach and that the Supreme Court should rule in favor of the plaintiffs. An employee background check that investigates, for example, what my medical treatment history has been is a complete and utter invasion of my privacy. Feel free to leave your own thoughts on the matter.
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