Supreme Court: NASA's intrusive background checks OK
NASA scientists had challenged background checks that included questions about past drug use. The Supreme Court ruling sidesteps the issue of whether there is a right to informational privacy.
Contract workers for the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) have lost their challenge to have intrusive government background investigations struck down as a violation of their right to privacy.Skip to next paragraph
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In an 8-to-0 decision announced on Wednesday, the US Supreme Court said the government has the power to insist that federal contract employees candidly answer certain personal questions – including whether they had received treatment or counseling for illegal drug use.
The ruling is a defeat for a group of 28 research scientists, engineers, and administrators at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory at the California Institute of Technology. The group filed a lawsuit challenging what they saw as overly intrusive background investigations that required that they answer personal questions or lose their jobs.
Writing for the court, Justice Samuel Alito said the challenged background checks – including open-ended questions to neighbors and others about a worker’s honesty – were “reasonable, employment-related inquiries that further the government’s interests in managing its internal operations.”
At the center of the case was an allegation that intrusive background investigations violate a constitutional right to informational privacy.
The high court sidestepped the fundamental question of whether such a right to informational privacy actually exists in the Constitution.
Instead, Justice Alito qualified his opinion by noting that the court was assuming such a right existed. He went on to say that the challenged portions of the government’s background check did not violate that right in the case of the NASA contractors.
“The government’s interests as employer and proprietor in managing its internal operations, combined with the protections against public dissemination provided by the Privacy Act of 1974, satisfy any [related constitutional privacy issue],” he wrote.
Background checks since 1953
The Jet Propulsion Laboratory has been in operation since 1958 and is run by employees of the California Institute of Technology. Although it is a NASA facility, its workers aren’t federal employees, they are contractors.