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NASA's Indecent Proposal

How invasive should a government background check be?

That's the question before the U.S. Supreme Court in the upcoming case of NASA v. Nelson.

First, the back story: In 2007, NASA apparently decided to use NACI (National Agency Check with Inquiries) guidelines for background checks on low-level contractors working at the California Institute for Technology and the Jet Propulsion Lab. "Low level" means these workers didn't work on classified projects.

What did NASA start checking contractors' backgrounds for, exactly? According to an Electronic Frontier Foundation Supreme Court filing, NASA's "suitability matrix" for hiring decisions included checking employee backgrounds for homosexuality, sodomy, carnal knowledge, incest, bestiality, indecent exposure or proposals, illegitimate children, cohabitation, adultery, mental or emotional "issues," minor traffic violations, displaying obscene material, acting drunk and making obscene telephone calls (better known to non-lawyers as "drunk dialing" or in the case of Mel Gibson, just being Mel Gibson). Apparently, contractors must also list three references who will be called and asked to supply additional information about the employee.

But wait a minute -- homosexuality? Illegitimate children? Living together? One wonders if the folks who set the rules have been watching too many old episodes of Mad Men because it isn't 1961 anymore. Times have changed. Hell, Mad Men lothario Don Draper is already having a harder time working his magic on the ladies and it's only 1965 on the show.

And how does NASA define "indecent proposal"? Well, I hope it doesn't involve the Demi Moore-Robert Redford movie of the same name because that flick totally blew even though it was made during a recession and the "what would you do for a million dollars?" theme was controversial for 1993. I'd rather know what they would do for a Klondike Bar. Hey, it's a recession and ice cream is expensive.

I enjoyed the movie's theme song by Sade, though, so let's split it down the middle on the likeablity scale. But moving on.

Perhaps not surprisingly, JPL employees felt NASA was invading their privacy and a lawsuit was filed. An appeals court ruled in favor of the employees and now their case has landed on the steps of the U.S. Supreme Court, where the justices are being asked to hold the line on invasive background checks and to figure out what the government should and shouldn't know about some of its employees.

Check out EFF's take on the issue here.

The U.S. Supreme Court has agreed to hear the case in October. Could the ruling have an impact on non-government background checks? Stay tuned.


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