Supreme Court Weighs Challenge to Background Checks

NASA v. Nelson is a case brought by twenty eight scientists, engineers, and other employees at the California Institute of Technology (CIT) who are under contract at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory.  The individuals have challenged a relatively new standardized questionnaire that was put in place in 2005 by the federal government in the wake of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks in an attempt to boost security among federal government workers and contractors.

The questionnaire for background investigations seeks personal information which includes asking about counseling or treatment for past illegal drug use. The scientists objected to being asked about any treatment or counseling they may have received. They also objected to the open-ended question by the government which asked references if they had any information bearing on the person’s suitability for employment (positive or negative feedback is called for).

According to a recent USA Today article, the scientists challenging the form say they are “low-risk” employees and as such, some questions are too intrusive. They say they don’t work on projects related to national security.

The New York Times reported that the CIT employees “appeared likely to lose their challenge to background checks required by a Bush administration antiterrorism initiative, judging from the justices’ questions on Tuesday during arguments at the Supreme Court.”

The LA Times also headlined the opinion that the justices were “skeptical of Caltech scientists’ privacy claims.”

So, what’s your view?

Our take is that this case underscores the fact that all employers, whether private or government, must draw a clear corollary between the role-related risks of the job and the type of background check they’ll perform.  The two need to match up.  It will certainly be interesting to hear what the highest court in the land has to say about this case.

Learn how to match the risk of the role with the right employment background checks by reading this recent blog post, “How to Take Action on an Employee Background Check.”

About Michael Gaul

A security industry professional since 1988, Michael has extensive expertise in the fields of human capital risk management, physical security, and background screening process management. Michael leads Proforma’s sales, marketing, and strategic customer relations efforts.


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