Supreme Court Set to Hear NASA Background Check Case
October 5, 2010
After three years of litigation, appeals, public outcry on privacy-rights, etc. the U.S. Supreme Court will finally hear arguments as to whether subjecting NASA engineers to background checks is in fact, constitutional. Believe it or not, you might be surprised to learn that I am a bit torn on this case.
This morning, the LA Times published a letter written by Dennis V. Byrnes, principal engineer and chief engineer for flight mechanics at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL is the engineering company contracted by NASA), explaining why he is opposed to these checks. Brynes writes:
“You may ask what can be so bad? The full answer is long; however, the release form required to keep one’s job gives part of the answer:
“I authorize any investigator, special agent, or other duly accredited representative of the authorized federal agency conducting my background investigation, to obtain any information relating to my activities from schools, residential management agents, employers, criminal justice agencies, retail business establishments, or other sources of information. This information may include, but is not limited to, my academic, residential, achievement, performance, attendance, disciplinary, employment history, and criminal history record information.” [Emphasis added]. Additionally, if other releases are required for things such as medical records or tax forms, they too must be given.”
He goes on to say the following:
“I want to be very clear. Neither I nor any of the plaintiffs have anything to hide. I care nothing for my personal privacy. I care for the terrible damage being done to the guarantees of our Constitution. I care for the loss of trust most of us once had in our government. I care that the longstanding trust and collegiality between engineers and scientists at JPL and their management is being destroyed and replaced by a poisoned atmosphere of mistrust by employees and heavy-handed paternalism by management. I care that all across the country, many talented technical people will leave government service or choose not to apply in the first place because of this unwarranted assault on their constitutional freedoms. I fear that carried to its natural end, this process, with its false promise of national security at the expense of freedom, will forever damage our country.”
I wholeheartedly believe that NASA and any other employer for that matter, has the right to conduct background checks on any employees, whether current or prospective as a condition of employment.
Byrnes general thoughts about background checks in the second quote make him appear to be out of touch with the current realities of today’s security conscious work environment. So while I don’t agree that background checks, in general, violate privacy and are unconstitutional, I am concerned that the screening criteria mentioned in the the former quote is not aligned with the position or job responsibilities; particularly the part about past medical records, residential management agents and retail business establishments. I also recall hearing a couple years ago that they were looking into the candidates sex lives including their sexual preferences (not sure whether that is true or not).
If what Byrnes says is correct about the fact that the work they perform is not top secret, classified, sensitive to the government, etc., then the screening criteria seems to be overreaching and should be re-evaluated. If the the government can demonstrate that the information sought has a direct bearing on the job, then so be it.
Here’s the bottom line: there is no reason why NASA engineers should not be subject to background checks including an exhaustive criminal records search, employment, education and professional license verifications, reference interviews, etc. They just need to ensure that the information they seek has a direct relationship to the job in question.