Privacy panel draws fire

DHS advisory group faces scrutiny for corporate-heavy membership

Some privacy advocates say that a new 20-member committee to advise Homeland Security Department officials on privacy issues is stacked with corporate members and may not be independent.

In response, DHS officials deny that the committee's authority will ever be used as a rubber stamp for controversial programs.

"It's clearly not independent," said Marc Rotenberg, president of the nonprofit Electronic Privacy Information Center. "For us, oversight is going to be about the role of the courts, the congressional oversight committees, Freedom of Information Act requests, the questions that the press asks. We feel there needs to be a lot more public attention independent of the DHS on these developments."

Privacy advocates say that several members of DHS' Data Privacy and Integrity Advisory Committee work for companies that have had problems with privacy and security policies.

For example, committee member D. Reed Freeman, a former attorney at the Federal Trade Commission, is chief privacy officer and a vice president at Claria, an online marketing company. When the company was known as Gator, before Freeman joined it, several media companies sued it for installing unauthorized pop-up ads on their Web sites.

Freeman, who was not available for an interview, provided a statement saying that he looked forward to working on the committee. The company is "committed to addressing some of the challenges it has faced," he said, adding that Claria has made significant strides to protect privacy.

Another panel member is privacy advocate Jim Harper, an editor of and director of information policy studies at the Cato Institute, a conservative think tank. Harper said he isn't surprised by the reaction from other privacy advocates, noting that the panel is corporate-heavy.

"It doesn't represent the real strong privacy advocate core," he said.

Harper said he is unsure what to expect from the committee. DHS officials could learn to tailor their programs and cancel some that "can't pass the privacy muster," he said. But some privacy advocates suspect that DHS officials might use the committee to approve controversial programs.

"Absolutely not," said Nuala O'Connor Kelly, the department's chief privacy officer, in response to that concern.

"This is going to be, I expect, a good or possibly a great committee, both in looking at the programs and policies of the department [and] in having a national conversation about the responsible use of personal information by the federal government," she said.

Kelly said the committee is industry-heavy because it reflects the applicant pool. However, it has a cross-section of corporate, academic, technology and privacy officials representing different viewpoints, she said.

Kelly also said she was dismayed that some privacy advocates don't realize the good work that the corporate members, such as Freeman, have done. Members of the corporate sector, she added, often require privacy officers to be professionally certified, which is something that government officials have not done.

The new committee will have a full-time, dedicated staff member to handle logistics. "We will help them and assist them, but we will not direct them," Kelly said. "The board will direct its own policy agenda."

Procedures to form the board began two years ago. The 20 members were selected from 129 applicants. Few privacy advocates applied. Lee Tien, a senior staff attorney at the Electronic Frontier Foundation, a nonprofit digital rights advocacy group, opted not to apply mainly because he didn't want to go through a background security clearance check. However, the primary reason for not applying, he said, is that he might sometime become involved in litigation involving a DHS program.

"There is an appearance, at least, if not the reality, of a potential conflict of interest, which could lead to someone being disqualified," Tien said.

DHS solicits advice

A newly formed Data Privacy and Integrity Advisory Committee will advise the Homeland Security Department's secretary and the chief privacy officer, Nuala O'Connor Kelly (above), on privacy, data integrity and data interoperability issues as they affect DHS programs, policies, operations and technologies.

Source: Homeland Security Department

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