Congress should investigate NASA’s failure to secure private information about its employees
By Dr. Robert M. Nelson 02/28/2013
During his presidential campaigns, President Obama, in criticizing his opposition, repeatedly noted that the definition of insanity is to repeat the same thing and expect a different outcome. These words are worth consideration by both sides in Congress. My former colleagues at Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) and I say this from personal experience.
In 2007 all employees at JPL were ordered, in the name of national security, to “voluntarily” agree to permit themselves to be subjected to unconstrained background investigations into the most intimate details of their private lives — including inquiries into unpaid library fines, jaywalking tickets and, if the unknown inquisitors should ask, private matters, such as past love affairs, gay or straight. Caltech, which administers JPL under contract with NASA, promised to dismiss any employee who refused to “volunteer” to be investigated.
Twenty-seven JPL employees and I filed suit in federal court against both Caltech and NASA to stop these inquisitions. We agreed that NASA should be able to investigate matters relevant to our employment as engineers and scientists, such as our academic background, our standing in our professional communities, and also legal matters, such as outstanding arrest warrants. However, we felt personal details, such as our medical and psychological records, or our personal love life, were our own business. At JPL, most of us do not have security clearances. We do no classified work. We simply design, build and fly spacecraft to peacefully explore the solar system and the universe beyond. We could not be blackmailed into turning over national secrets because we do not know of them. We were glad to give the government what it reasonably needed to know about us in order to carry out NASA’s mission. Unfortunately, NASA wanted everything.
We asked the courts for an injunction stopping these investigations. Our suit was dismissed in US District Court, but we won an injunction from the US Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit. Ultimately, the government appealed the case to the US Supreme Court, which overturned the injunction in 2011. Meanwhile, Caltech issued disciplinary citations to me, and later to other plaintiffs in the case, because we presented our views to colleagues using a JPL email system that is widely used for non-business matters, such as publicizing theater and sports events, or advertising sales in the Caltech bookstore.
At the Supreme Court, our legal advocates offered many excellent arguments supporting our position, including the point that the US government was not capable of keeping such personal information confidential. The government responded that the Privacy Act offered sufficient protection for the security of such items. The American Civil Liberties Union, arguing on our behalf in an amicus curiae brief to the High Court, stated, “Some information is so private and so personal that individuals should not be compelled to disclose it to anyone, including the government, absent an overriding governmental interest.” The ACLU continued, “Increasingly, moreover, the government is unable to preserve the confidentiality even of information that it is statutorily obligated to keep private. In a world of computer hackers, the safeguards of the Privacy Act have become substantially less secure.”
Let’s remember that the government was unable to prevent the publishing of the Wikileaks documents in 2010, just as it was unable to prevent the leaking to the Pentagon Papers decades before during the Viet Nam War. Once in government hands, our personal information was just as insecure.
We asked Congress for help. Our local congressional representatives made public appeals to NASA to guarantee the privacy of our personal information, but our representatives never asked NASA why it needed to have this very private information in the first place!
Ultimately, Caltech mandated that all employees “voluntarily” submit themselves to these inquisitions. Most JPL employees did comply. Others and I elected to leave JPL rather than comply. The inquisitions continued.Incidentally, more than one woman colleague confided to me that the investigators asked her about her sex life! They were forced to answer or Caltech would fire them. The inquisitions were completed by July 1.
Last November, I was among 10,000 NASA employees to receive a communication from a NASA contractor, informing us that our personal information was on an un-encrypted NASA laptop computer that had been stolen from a parked car in Washington, DC, on Halloween night. NASA refuses to disclose exactly what information it lost, but admits that at least some of it was from the background inquisitions. More recently, NASA has revised its initial estimate and now admits that the personal information of 40,000 individuals was lost in the incident.
Once again, we asked Congress for help. Once again, our congressional representatives said that NASA needs to do a better job protecting the personal data that NASA inquisitors gather about NASA employees. They never questioned NASA as to why it needed this information in the first place. Have we heard this song before?
President Obama is right. The definition of insanity is to repeat the same thing over again and expect a different outcome. Hello Congress! Are you listening? If so, then please insist that NASA explain clearly why it needs to know these intimate details of our private lives in order for us to explore the universe.
Dr. Robert Nelson, a retired senior research scientist at JPL, was the lead respondent in the US Supreme Court case, NASA, et al. v. Nelson, et al., decided on Jan. 19, 2011.