OMB issues privacy guidance

In an effort to ensure that personal information is protected, the Office of Management and Budget last week directed agencies to conduct privacy-impact assessments before developing or changing systems.

Agencies should review how information is collected and used in the organization, according to a memo from OMB Director Joshua Bolten to agency leaders. The directive provides guidance for implementing the privacy provisions of the E-Government Act of 2002.

"This guidance directs agencies to conduct reviews of how information about individuals is handled within their agency," he wrote.

Privacy assessments for the fiscal 2005 information technology budget requests were due to OMB by Oct. 3 — only 10 days after the guidance was issued.

Ari Schwartz, associate director for the Center of Democracy and Technology, said many agencies likely have been working from draft guidelines and focusing on those issues long before the release of the final guidelines.

The long-awaited guidelines were expected in April, but now give agencies the necessary direction to move forward with their privacy plans, he said.

"A lot of work has been done making sure there was public input into the guidance, which is important," Schwartz said. "Agencies do have a good idea of what to do at this point."

Assessments must be conducted before developing IT systems that collect, maintain or disseminate identifiable information, or when initiating new information collection for 10 or more people, OMB officials said.

Agencies must also develop a plan to make their Web site privacy policies machine-readable — meaning they automatically provide notification when the site doesn't cover visitors' privacy protections. Agencies must tell Web site visitors when it's voluntary to submit information, how to grant consent for an agency to use voluntary personal data and what their rights are under the Privacy Act, officials said.

Agency sites will also be required to disclose the nature of the information collected, officials said.

Robert Gellman, a privacy expert, said assessments are published after decisions have been made, which limits public comments to them. The assessments should be made available online, he said.

"More public input in the process would be very helpful and [would] get agencies to do a better job," Gellman said.

Although the guidelines clarify the requirements, they lack details about how to administer assessments, he said. "Agencies will have to make decisions about how to carry this out," he said. "How you do it is going to vary depending on the agency and the technologies. It's going to be up to the agency to breathe more life into it."

Privacy experts said they expect the assessments to be directly connected to a project's funding. "Hopefully it will have an impact on the funding, and hopefully it will get agencies to plan better on privacy, so privacy's not an afterthought," Schwartz said.

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