Data for ID badges worries NASA workers

Saturday, June 16, 2007

Elizabeth Auster

Cleveland Plain Dealer Bureau         forwarded by NFFE

Washington - Could a worker at the NASA Glenn Research Center in Cleveland lose his job because he can't remember the registration number he got from the Selective Service System decades ago?

Could a federal worker's mental health history show up on a government database that falls into the wrong hands?

Could federal employees be penalized because background checks turn up information suggesting they disagree with the Bush administration's politics?

Workers are voicing such fears as the federal government begins phasing in a new ID badge system designed to increase security at federal facilities, say officials at two unions that are considering filing challenges to the system.

One of the chief concerns, union officials say, is that sensitive personal information could become public as a result of online questionnaires that workers must fill out before they qualify for new "smart card" badges that eventually will be required to enter their workplaces. The questionnaires, which ask for names of workers' friends and neighbors, also in some cases ask workers to sign release forms allowing investigators to get access to their financial and medical histories.

The questionnaires have rattled some NASA Glenn workers who have received them in recent weeks, said Virginia Cantwell, president of a union local that represents workers at NASA Glenn.

"This is a major issue here," said Cantwell, who complained that many NASA workers seem to have been lumped into a category of workers who warrant more-extensive investigations. "We're going to be fighting this."

Cantwell said members of the Lewis Engineers and Scientists Association voted this week to consider legal action to challenge how NASA is implementing the new system. She said some workers are reluctant to release medical and financial information, and many are nervous about such information going into a database.

Others, she said, are running into trouble when they try to comply. She cited one worker whose application for a new badge was rejected because he hasn't been able to locate his Selective Service number even though he has contacted government agencies for help.

William Henry Jones, an engineer at NASA Glenn, said Friday that he worries about the new system even though he was placed in a low-risk category that spared him from the more-extensive questionnaire. He said he can't fathom why the government needs to interview his neighbors when he has spent his entire 33-year career at NASA.

He said he fears government officials could mine the database for information about federal workers' political beliefs or other tidbits that could provide cause for firing people.

Charles Paidock, a regional vice president of the National Federation of Federal Employees, said he has heard similar concerns from workers at the General Services Administration. Paidock, who represents workers in six states including Ohio, said he plans to file an unfair labor practice charge next week if GSA officials don't agree to meet with the union to discuss the new system.

Les Farkas, a project manager in charge of implementing the new badge system at NASA Glenn, said Friday that agencies are required to do the background checks to comply with a directive by President Bush in 2004 that called for a common ID standard for all federal employees and contractors. The goal of the system, Bush said, was to increase security and efficiency and reduce fraud.

Farkas said the level of information NASA is seeking about employees depends on the agency's determination of how sensitive their positions are.

Kathy Dillaman, associate director of investigative services for the federal Office of Personnel Management, noted that some workers will be able to get badges without divulging information about their credit or medical histories. She said it's up to individual agencies to assess the sensitivity of workers' jobs.

The personnel office "takes great precautions to protect the sensitive information collected as part of our background investigations," she said through a spokesman.

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