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JPL employees demand probe of NASA's data security measures

The request comes after the theft of a laptop computer containing personal information for up to 10,000 employees. A class-action lawsuit is planned.

November 29, 2012|By Tiffany Kelly, Los Angeles Times
  • A NASA Crawler-Transporter, seen in Florida's Kennedy Space Center. NASA's data security measures, particularly in the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, have increasingly come under scrutiny.
A NASA Crawler-Transporter, seen in Florida's Kennedy Space Center.… (Tim Shortt / Associated…)

Workers at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory are demanding that Congress investigate the agency's actions following the theft of a laptop computer containing personal information for up to 10,000 employees.

The incident is just the latest in a series of NASA disputes involving employee background checks.

The laptop was stolen from an employee's locked vehicle in Washington, D.C., on Oct. 31. Several weeks later, letters were sent to workers notifying them that personal information gathered in NASA background checks, including home addresses and Social Security numbers, was stolen, and that they were now at risk for identity theft.

On Wednesday, Pasadena attorney Dan Stormer said he planned to file a class-action lawsuit on behalf of current and former JPL employees.

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"We are outraged," Stormer told reporters at a news conference. "The most sensitive, the most protected information that you can have, was released from our clients' background investigations."

Robert M. Nelson, a former JPL research scientist, said he quit in April because he viewed the government's background checks as excessively intrusive.

Nelson was among a group of employees who sued the federal government unsuccessfully in 2007 over privacy issues.

"It gives me little pleasure to say that we told you so," Nelson said. "But we did. Five years ago we warned of this possibility that if the government had this kind of information at this kind of detail, that it will surely be leaked."

Rep. Adam B. Schiff (D-Burbank), a member of the House Appropriations science subcommittee, called on NASA "to report on and accelerate its efforts to maintain data security."

Rep. Judy Chu (D-Monterey Park) said in a statement she would push the agency to improve data security. "NASA has previously had security breaches of sensitive information," she said. "It has to stop."

The stolen computer, which was password-protected but not encrypted, was never intended to leave NASA's Washington, D.C., building, officials said.

"It was removed from the building against agency policy," said Bob Jacobs, a NASA spokesman.

The employee who removed the laptop will be disciplined, and NASA is now rushing to encrypt all of its computers by Dec. 21, he said.

"Ultimately, NASA regrets the incident and the inconvenience it is causing everyone whose information may be exposed," Jacobs said.

In recent years, NASA has stopped asking questions about workers' sexual history and other sensitive topics, but some workers still view the background checks as invasive.

Josette Bellan, a JPL senior research scientist, said she submitted information for the background investigation in April, but it was initially rejected because in the comment section she wrote she was completing the form under duress. She then resubmitted the information, leaving the comment section blank.

Now Bellan is worried that her personal information may be leaked.

"I think that this is a great concern, not only to us, but to the entire nation," she said. "I hope more thought is given to this issue and finally, at the highest level, people are going to see it the way we do."

tiffany.kelly@latimes.com

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