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back to article NASA boffins resist intrusive security probe

A group of cheesed-off American space boffins are resisting new security procedures, implemented in the wake of 9/11, which require them to submit to background checks. Recent reports indicate that a group of 28 employees at NASA's famous Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL)* have mounted a lawsuit intended to prevent NASA from …

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More boffins?

I thought we'd established that only British scientists can be 'boffins'!

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"others dont seem to mind...."

... or maybe they are just keeping their mouths shut cos they want to keep their job.

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That's nothing

Here in the UK, HMG intend to force every British subject to all of that and more, and we have to pay for the priviledge!

Never mind leave the company, our only alternative to the database state and mandatory fingerprinting is to leave the company.

Oh, or kick out New Labour the first chance we get.

Ian

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I bet China

can't wait to offer all these disgruntled scientists a nice 'no questions asked' position......

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who reads contracts

"NASA spokesmen said that all the other NASA employees didn't seem to mind, and nor did thousands of other workers on the federal payroll, also subject to the badging scheme."

Perhaps it's because these are the type of people most likely to read the bits of paper put in front of them.

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Job offers

I am sure the Chinese would offer these guys good jobs...

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Your loss is someone else's gain

In another article the Register writes about the Chinese ambitions to develop scramjet technology. I'm sure the Chinese will welcome the help of the disgruntled US scientists and engineers in that and other undertakings.

It is possible that one Osama Bin-Laden may also find some new candidates to fill the vacancies in the explosives and hazmat operations departments.

The astounding ability of our modern-era political leaders to damage the interests of the countries they have the misfortune to rule never cease to amaze me.

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On to something

I think the Americans are onto something here and actually have a good plan - they just haven't executed it well.

Preumably at least 1 or 2 of these people has something they want to hide. Nothing shocking, just something they don't want people to know. If some foreign state was to get hold of that info they could blackmail the affected person and get them to work against America.

Now, if they just said "right folks, if you're secretly gay, a crack head, stole a car once, voted for Bush etc just stick your hand in the air". That way it'd all be out in the open, and no blackmail!

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All is forgiven

I have criticized Lewis elsewhere, but really, after seeing the article's tagline, I forgive everything. Fab!

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US will find out anyway

We already know that the Bush administration engages in wiretapping without warrants and torture without trials. Do these JPL employees really think that them refusing to sign a piece of paper is going to stop the American government from probing them?

If I try and relate their position to my own it become really quite absurd. The American government has already most likely been through my financial details (I regularly perform international transfers through Swift when I buy stuff online with my credit card).

Do I care that America might have snooped on me? A little bit I suppose, but objecting and refusing to submit is just plain silly. America would just accuse me of being a terrorist, kidnap me, and torture me in some black ops camp until I confess that I am Hitler's love child and have weapons of mass destruction hidden in my car boot (I'm not and I don't, but sleep deprivation and dog bites do funny things to the mind).

It doesn't really bother me if the American government finds out I bought some cat food yesterday. Fighting them about my right to keep my cat food secret is disproportionate and futile. America has lots of guns and weapons of mass destruction, and has been quite happy to use them in the last hundred years. America's history of bombing civilian targets with nuclear armaments, setting civilians on fire with napalm, and their current regime of kidnap and torture gives them my respect and prevents me from having any quibble with them checking my credit card purchases. They're the good guys anyway.

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But....

"The Presidential Directive requires that federal employees be fingerprinted, fill in questionnaires and authorise security probes into their backgrounds. "

But will they have to give DNA samples?

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Boffo Boffins

One of the hubristically-challenged boffins had this comment :

“I can fly a spacecraft to any planet in the galaxy, and I’m being judged by people who don’t have a clue as to my technical qualifications whether I’m suitable for government service,” said [NASA engineer Dennis] Byrnes."

I would suggest he fly a spacecraft to any planet in the galaxy (excluding our own small circle of) and that would promptly shut up the common folk who dare question his giant abilities or possible security concerns.

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Anonymous Coward

loose cannons

Bright people are often iconoclasts, independent, prickly, weird. They are really bright because they see things and do things differently.

Now, if I ran NASA, who would I want? Loose cannons who might shake up my organisation with fantastic new ideas, or people who will agree to rules to keep their jobs?

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And we wonder why NASA is going down hill...

As they fire all the briliant engineers who got into a little trouble in college, and hire less qualified people with sparkling records.

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@ the China related commentors.

I would imagine a top NASA scientist moving to China would be similar to Lance Armstrong saddling up a tricycle to further his career.

He may be a super-star in the tricycle league but he would still be riding a tricycle.

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Anonymous Coward

It is a strange request.

They work at NASA. Why are astronomers on the Federal payroll?

The point is they shouldn't be forced to give such detailed information to such untrustworthy people. Our founding fathers would NEVER have accepted this. I applaud them for refusing. In my history book they are going to be heroes on the same level as Rosa Parks.

It's sad how much things have changed in American society where citizens will bend over backwards for those in power. If everyone is too afraid to stand up for their rights, they will gladly continue stripping them away.

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Cheesed Off

I retired from the USEPA this Spring, but 2 years prior a switched jobs at the USEPA, literally down the hall, with no grade change, just duties. The fools in security started a full background check, and may be still doing it for all I know. Seemed stupid, in light of the fact that I had worked there for over 25 years. Must of suspected I was a North Korean mole trying to discover secret something or other.

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Anonymous Coward

@Ross

Actually, while I've never taken a job requiring security clearance my self (I refuse to work for the guberment), I know a few who have, and at least one guy who freely talked about his, shall we say, alternative life style. It wasn't known to his coworkers, but since when push came to shove he was willing to share it with the investigators for the background check, they passed him.

So Ross, you're right - one of the big things they are looking for is blackmail material. Becuase if they can find it, so can someone else. On the other hand, if you're willing to accept the consequences of it becoming public in a pinch, but would simply prefer to keep it private, then you probbaly aren't going to sell out your country to keep it a secret.

Of course, that's not the only things they are looking for - they will also be looking for signs of integrity, mental stability (we don't want people with state secrets who flip out every couple of years, do we?), etc., etc. In short, while there are certain lines you can cross and get away with it if you are simply honest about it, others are more firm. As I understand it, your example of being a current crackhead would fall in this category (though if you were a crackhead but recovered 10 years ago, you may pass - I don't know *shrug*).

Anyway, this is my understanding from talking with like 2 guys who went through it (including the "interesting" one), so take it with a grain of salt. :)

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Anonymous Coward

It's about making people obey...

The rule to get personal details is rather foolish, no one who would have anything in their past that might put them away from working for the government and want to be a spy would confess such a thing.

I believe it has more to do with making people obey stupid rules so they will accept anything, sounds like Catbert is in the white House lol

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Anonymous Coward

Directive does not require checks

"The Presidential Directive requires that federal employees - in order to be issued with new, mandated security badges - be fingerprinted, fill in questionnaires and authorise security probes into their backgrounds"

Actually it doesn't require that. What it *does* seek to establish is

"a Federal standard for secure and reliable forms of identification"

where:

"Secure and reliable forms of identification" for purposes of this directive means identification that (a) is issued based on sound criteria for verifying an individual employee's identity; (b) is strongly resistant to identity fraud, tampering, counterfeiting, and terrorist exploitation; (c) can be rapidly authenticated electronically; and (d) is issued only by providers whose reliability has been established by an official accreditation process

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Re: A strange request

<i>They work at NASA. Why are astronomers on the Federal payroll?</i>

Um...because NASA is a federally funded government agency???

<i>The point is they shouldn't be forced to give such detailed information to such untrustworthy people.</i>

If they're so untrustworthy, would these scientists really want to WORK for them? There's a bit of a flaw in your reasoning, methinks...

<i>Our founding fathers would NEVER have accepted this. I applaud them for refusing. In my history book they are going to be heroes on the same level as Rosa Parks.</i>

Unfortunately, your history book doesn't pay their mortgage.

<i>It's sad how much things have changed in American society where citizens will bend over backwards for those in power. If everyone is too afraid to stand up for their rights, they will gladly continue stripping them away.</i>

I agree with this fundamentally, but it's pretty obvious that when you work for the government, with classified projects, that you're going to need security clearance, and that means a background check. If they don't like the conditions of their continued employment, they have every right to seek employment elsewhere.

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Anonymous Coward

Title

<< but it's pretty obvious that when you work for the government, with classified projects, that you're going to need security clearance, and that means a background check.>>

They aren't working on classified projects, that's the point.

Even NASA/JPL's own stats say that 97% of the staff are on 'non-sensitive' projects. Why do they need to have anything further than the current NACI check for them? (NACI is the check against criminal databases).

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Anonymous Coward

Wishful official thinking or intentional misinformation

"NASA spokesmen said that all the other NASA employees didn't seem to mind, and nor did thousands of other workers on the federal payroll, also subject to the badging scheme."

Other centers and other NON-NASA agency employees are both supporting the grass-roots action and providing financial support for the legal fight.

JPL and NASA officials know this but prefer to pretend that they do not.

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Anonymous Coward

Flashback to the 90s...

Hypocrits... NASA's been requiring contractors to go through that at least since the 90s when I worked for McDonnel Douglas. Makes sense, might want to know a little about some one before you let them play with your billion dollar toys. Those "badges" they are talking about get you into any NASA facility and are government issued IDs, identifying the holder as a federal employee. Granted, they won't get you into clean rooms as you need a seperate pass for that but it's good enough to get you within three miles of a shuttle on launch day.

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Anonymous Coward

Correct, the directive does not require checks, but the implementation DOES

That is actually a good part of the reason why there is such outrage. The directive is for verifiable ID. Mr Griffins' _chosen_ implementation is to institute an unlimited fishing expedition into every private file, laying bare political affiliation, sexual history, ... and _everything_ else.

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Anonymous Coward

The question is...

how secure is this process. Can someone go though it without telling the entire truth? Because if it's possible to get the clearance without telling too much, then it might worth to try. Even for possible spys and terrorists. Afaik most of the identified terrorists were clear, like the London bombers or the latest german terrorists, where two of them were native german people who weren't born muslims or acted like one.

Imho the people who will leave nasa could go to other, no questions asked companies and 'develop' commercial space technologies. (actually take their knowledge from nasa to the private sector) For those who think american people would never work for the chinese, there is a certain Canadian company whos speciality is parallel computing. That company (although it's located in canada) is actually directed by chinese engineers and has russian investors and has a workforce from canada and the usa. Of course they explicitly stated that they will not use their technology to make code breaker chips... the same is true for other companies, they will gladly hire those who leave nasa.

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Correct me if I'm wrong but..

Isn't it true that the political appointees working at NASA and even members of congress etc. are exempt from these checks?

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Rockets, not Jets

JPL did little work on jets, it used 'JET' as an alternative to rocket since the rocket technology JPL specialised in was not flavour of the week when JPL was set up and funding was therefore difficult. Jet was the topical fund-raising catch-all term similar to 'Climate Change' today.

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Been there, done that. It's no big deal.

I've held some supremely high clearances, when I worked for Uncle. I'm talking SCI-level clearances. No, I ain't telling which ones. The point is, they don't really give a rat's carcass who you've been boffing, so long as you're not liable for blackmail. They don't care what your finances look like, beyond that you're not so desperate that a bribe would seriously tempt you. They *do* care about risk-taking behavior of the sort that makes you liable to *become* subject to blackmail, or might make you seriously unreliable on the job (such as compulsive gambling, or un-treated addictions), or might make you so desperate as you might look for radical forms of relief. They *do* care about *radical* anti-Americanism, but could care less about less radical political beliefs. Likewise, so long as you're not a Branch Davidian, or the like, they don't care about your religion, either. They just want to be sure you're reasonably stable, not insane, and not a mole or plant.

Mostly, background checks are to give reasonable assurance that you have reasonable judgement, are not an immediate security risk, and are reasonably blackmail-proof. I've got some amazing stories about the kinds of people whom have asked for clearances, and about the kinds of government-known backgrounds people have had whom had their clearances granted. Drug use? Yup, it's been waivered. Criminal records? They can be waivered too, provided you've complied with your punishments, and the crime wasn't too severe. Sexual history? For the most part the government could care less, and I've had co-workers, with the same clearences as I (or higher), that were gay, lesbian, and bi-sexual. Didn't matter - they were open, and so could not be blackmailed about it.

IOW, these 28 prima donnas are basically acting like spoiled brats, throwing a tantrum and holding their breath until they turn blue, all over what amounts to a whole lotta nothing. Who cares about a buncha spoiled punks? Let them go - they *are* replaceable.

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Anonymous Coward

"It's no big deal" was probably true under prior administrations

Given that the current administration thinks laws are quaint anachronisms which should only apply to others, the statement "the government could care less" is provably not true. This administration is based on theology and has amply demonstrated that it will use political affiliation when judging suitability for employment. All of this is besides the point that there is no reason for the unlimited fishing expeditions in the first place because HSPD-12 does not call for it and 97-99 % of the workers being spied upon do NO classified or secret work.

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Jay

did Aldrich Ames have a security badge?

typical yanks deluding themselves that a badge makes them safe

I hope by pissing off their own citizens (er hello, these are the ones that want to improve the country), the US govt produces more dissaffected people who are willing to sell out their morally bankrupt country

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Anonymous Coward

If they would only check their facts first

This just shows that PhDs can be total idiots, just like the rest of us. The type of investigation required for HSPD-12 is minimally invasive. Fingerprints do have to be checked by the FBI, but unless you're a wanted felon, you have nothing to fear. I perform background investigations for the U.S. Government and the only time they crawl up your a** is when you apply for a security clearance. The vast majority of background investigations do not involve security clearances unless you work for theh CIA or NSA.

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@quaint anachronisms

Considering that I worked for Reagan, Bush the Elder, and Clinton, I'm not at all certain that, for at least two of those regimes, the current environment is all that different. The only thing that's really changed is that now, the gov't shenanigans are being outed, instead of more-or-less competently swept under the rug.

Anyway, as noted, the HSPD-12 is indeed a minor surface skim, and will only catch the most obvious of illegal behavior. If these bozos are scared of *that,* they really DO need to be let go. They're either too stupid, or too obviously criminals, to be allowed to call themselves 'government-funded rocket scientists' any longer. The clearance is a condition of employment. They're free to choose to comply, or to choose another employer.

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Anonymous Coward

HSPD-12 is minimally invasive - The NASA implementation is maximally invasive

The NASA implementation REQUIRES a VOLUNTARY waiver of ALL privacy rights, period. So voluntary that you lose your job if you do not grant the blanket privacy waiver.

HSPD-12 itself ONLY REQUIRES a uniform and verifiable ID.

Mr Griffin chose this maximally invasive implementation and requested that it be extended to everyone, not just those covered by the original request.

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If the investigation is so minimal, why is the waiver so broad?

Somebody wrote: "This just shows that PhDs can be total idiots, just like the rest of us. The type of investigation required for HSPD-12 is minimally invasive. Fingerprints do have to be checked by the FBI, but unless you're a wanted felon, you have nothing to fear."

And laird cummings wrote: "Anyway, as noted, the HSPD-12 is indeed a minor surface skim, and will only catch the most obvious of illegal behavior. If these bozos are scared of *that,* they really DO need to be let go."

If they really intend to perform only a minimal check, then it should be OK if we just sign a much narrower waiver, one that lets them perform whatever investigation is required for the minimal check. (Indeed, most of us have already done that, when our background was checked for a NAC.)

Instead, they want us to sign a waiver that authorizes a far broader fishing expedition than that, and they won't let us make any modifications to the waiver that would limit it to the minimal investigation you describe. I presume the reason they insist on the broader waiver is not that they plan to tear it up and throw the pieces in the fire -- they want that waiver because they at least *might* use the broad authority it grants them. And that's one of the reasons we don't want to sign it.

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@Broad Waivers

Why are they broad? Because you never know what will turn up, and need to be followed up upon. Even surface skims can turn up behavior that needs further investigation. I mentioned above that I have some incredible stories about the kinds of people that seek clearances - Including people that list their *drug dealers* as security references. Yes, that really happened in at least one case of which I am personally aware. So, even though the HSPD-12 is a minimally invasive surface scan, only capable of finding the most obvious of criminal behavior, sometimes obvious (and oblivious) criminals seek clearance.

Thus, the broad waivers - if you're a stupid criminal, and get caught on the HSPD-12, you not only deserve what you get, but you can also NOT claim that you didn't authorize the investigation.

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