Back to my roots

Even though my blog is (edit: formerly) titled “Civil Liberties and World News,” I haven’t posted on either of these subjects in a month and a half. It’s time to return to that theme.

Former Secretary of State Colin Powell has started calling for the closure of Guantanamo. I fear it won’t be closed until we have a new president (and possibly not even then), but it’s nice to see that more people are standing up and saying that everyone should have a right to a trial. Moreover, a recent court decision stated that the US cannot indefinitely hold prisoners without trial. It would be fantastic if this kept up momentum. We’ll see what happens.

Also, the Massachusetts legislature defeated a proposed amendment to ban gay marriage (if the measure had passed, it would have gone to a public vote in 2008). There’s one tricky part left, though: a law almost a century old that states that non-Massachusetts residents can’t get married there unless the marriage would be legal in their home state. This was originally intended to fight interracial marriages. Let’s hope this law gets repealed soon!

In more worrying news, minorninth writes that national labs (including JPL) are putting tighter security clearances on all employees, including janitors and secretaries. They are now required to disclose drug use (edit: apparently this is currently legal, although many people think it shouldn’t be), financial records, their armed services numbers, and other totally inappropriate things. If you actually work on a sensitive project, there’s even more: they want to know about your international vacations and medical history (edit: upon further inspection, this looks like this part might actually be an acceptable thing, too, since these people have been granted special clearance by the government). The worst part about this is that the mainstream media doesn’t seem to be picking up the story at all, which is really too bad. I hope more people find out about this before this becomes the de rigeur.

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  1. riccobot says:

    So, why is it totally inappropriate for people that have access to sensitive information to disclose these sorts of things?

    • Alan says:

      I agree that people should be screened very carefully before being allowed to work with information that can affect national security. However, I don’t see how medical records have any bearing on the stuff these people are working on: if you have herpes or asthma or a weak knee condition or any of a multitude of things on your medical records, it really doesn’t affect your job performance. It can, however, affect how your boss/director/&c treat you once they know this information, which wouldn’t be good for anyone.

      Here is a copy of the questionnaire for non-sensitive positions. If you are an employee but don’t have access to sensitive information, I think this is even worse. I can only think of one reason to ask about illegal drug use, and that is to fire people who engage in such use. I’m not saying they’re going to fire people who have admitted to using illegal drugs, but I can’t think of another reason to ask the question. It seems very nasty to fire a hard-working, reliable janitor who has held his position for 15 years just because six months ago he tried marijuana for the first time. and I don’t see how your selective service number or your military history has any bearing on anything at all, particularly for these non-sensitive positions.

      You probably know more about this than I do, as my information is all third-hand. Have you heard anything about this from employees of national labs?

  2. Most of this makes reasonably good sense to me, actually.

    For one thing, I doubt your immediate supervisor gets to look at your medical records; the people doing the security screening get to look at your medical records. They say “yeah, this person is cool”, and you’re in. They’re looking for evidence of mental health issues, and I doubt it’s possible to get just the mental health records for somebody.

    Financial data? That one probably makes the most sense of all: if you’re in terrible financial shape, you’re more bribe-able. In general, if you’ve got all sorts of dark secrets in your past, you can be blackmailed. Drug use is a strong indicator of all of these things: it’s (a) secret, (b) often an addiction and (c) expensive. This leaves you open to all sorts of unreasonably forceful pressures.

    Also, it’s worth pointing out that everybody everywhere does drug screening, and it’s silly to think otherwise. I got a full drug test for a summer internship while I was in high school, for doing what amounted to tech support; it seems reasonable to me that people should be asked those sorts of questions. Also, selective service numbers are used for military record-keeping (and if you didn’t register, they don’t want to hire you, ’cause that’s (a) illegal and (b) means you’re bad at submitting to authority, which isn’t what they want), and they want your military records because “dishonorably discharged for striking his commanding officer with a dead skunk” is something they want to know about.

    You do make a good point that some of this feels pretty extreme for non-sensitive personnel, but my guess is that somebody near the top has been reminded of the second rule of security: physical access always wins. I don’t care if you’re the secretary, or the janitor, or have a doubleplusgood top secret clearance; if you’re in the building, you’ve got access to things people outside the building don’t.

    Also, the government gets a lot more PR flack per {child molester, criminal, druggie} hired than most companies, so the incentive structure is there.

    • riccobot says:

      Yes. Everything that he said.

    • muddernh says:

      I’ve been watching Veronica Mars lately, and am thinking about the detective/spy posing as a janitor, sneaking in w/ massive amounts of keys and stealing sensitive information bit that happens on all detective/mystery shows. Not sure how well it actually works, but there’s that too.

      I think Mac already said that though more intellectually w/ physical access always wins

    • Alan says:

      I looked into this a bit, and it seems you might be right that this sort of thing is appropriate when a person is going to be (or has been) granted clearance to sensitive information. The thing that still gets me is that they are also doing this to employees with no such clearance, who are normal citizens in the eyes of the government and who do not have (and likely never will have) any of the benefits of having the clearance for which they are being screened.

      I have never had an employer require a drug test (or copies of medical records or my military registration information, for that matter), so I’m surprised you perceive this to be commonplace. Perhaps it is, though, and I have just been lucky so far. Even though drug testing is legal, there is a fair amount of disagreement over whether it should be legal.

      I have edited my post to reflect your and riccobot‘s arguments. Thanks for keeping me accurate!

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