The Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) urged the United States Supreme Court Monday to uphold an appeals court decision that blocks invasive and unnecessary background checks at the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), arguing that the over-collection of personal data puts employees’ privacy at risk.
The case was originally filed by federal contract employees working at CalTech’s Jet Propulsion Lab, which houses NASA’s robotic spacecraft laboratory. The workers were low-risk, by NASA’s own admission, and did not work on classified projects. Yet the government instituted sweeping background checks, including a requirement to list three references who were then questioned about the employees’ general behavior. NASA said it needed the information to assess “suitability” for government employment, and would check factors like “carnal knowledge,” “homosexuality,” “cohabitation,” and “illegitimate children.”
“Many of these CalTech employees have worked at the JPL for decades, but now NASA is asking their references open-ended questions in search of derogatory information,” said EFF Senior Staff Attorney Lee Tien. “This technique is sadly familiar — in the McCarthy era, federal employees had to disclose personal facts via personnel forms as part of loyalty programs — and has no place in the United States today.”
The U.S. Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit ruled in favor of the employees, enjoining NASA from collecting any more personal data, but the government appealed. In an amicus brief filed Monday, EFF argues that the Supreme Court should uphold the 9th Circuit’s decision in order to protect workers’ constitutional rights.
“These background checks capture all sorts of sensitive personal information that’s totally unnecessary for low-level employees who don’t work on national security matters,” said EFF Civil Liberties Director Jennifer Granick. “Meanwhile, there are gaping loopholes in the legal safeguards in place to protect this very sensitive information. As technology makes it easier to collect and aggregate vast amounts of data, we must be particularly cautious to prevent government misuse.”
For the full amicus brief: