Tuesday, March 9, 2010

Supreme Court Agrees To Hear Informational Privacy Case

The United States Supreme Court has agreed to review a lower court ruling on how much information the federal government can collect as part of pre-employment background checks.

This is actually pretty good news, although the outcome is far from certain.

From Wired Threat Level:

The justices, without comment, decided Monday to review a lower-court decision surrounding the concept of so-called “informational privacy.” The 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in San Francisco struck down intrusive background checks last year on nearly three dozen National Aeronautics and Space Administration contractors as being too invasive — calling them an unconstitutional, “broad inquisition.”

Before you start drawing conclusions about what's appropriate for the feds to review before offering you a contracting gig, consider that these consultants would not have access to classified information, and the scope of data included their sex lives and possible drug use.

It's pretty common for the government to review the possibility of risky behaviors, given the constant threat of blackmail by foreign agents seeking to exploit personal foibles  to flip someone into providing information.

What's interesting here is the lack of balance exhibited - a trampling of privacy rights without cause, given the types of data the would-be contractors might be accessing.

Even corporations are looking into prospective employees personal lives and finances as part of their hiring decisions. It's become common for firms to pull credit scores and reports and to search social networking sites for nuggets of information that might shed some insight into someone's proclivities or nonconforming activities, to say the least.

I remember friends and family telling me that the feds came knocking on their doors back in the day when I needed a top secret clearance in the military. While that still occurs, it's much easier to pull scads of electronic data for analysis than it is to pound the pavement checking someone out the old-fashioned way.

Let's hope that the Supreme Court places some clear boundaries around what's appropriate. Given the current makeup of the court, it's not likely that it will be a civil liberties bonanza, but something would be better than nothing.

Image via Wikimedia Commons

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