Upping the ante on privacy
- By Sara Michael
- May 24, 2004
House Democrats introduced a bill last week that would create a governmentwide chief privacy officer position and privacy officer jobs in every federal department.
Reps. Kendrick Meek (D-Fla.) and Jim Turner (D-Texas), members of the House Select Committee on Homeland Security, introduced the Strengthening Homeland Innovation by Ensuring Liberty, Democracy and Privacy Act, or SHIELD Privacy Act.
The bill would create an appointed position in the Office of Management and Budget to coordinate federal privacy policies. It also would set up a Commission on Privacy, Freedom and Homeland Security to examine privacy issues related to the government's anti-terrorism efforts.
"As we move forth in the time of terrorism, it's important that we have, at the highest level, a privacy officer in each agency to make sure we are not violating the privacy of Americans," Meek said during a conference call with reporters.
The governmentwide privacy chief would be responsible for evaluating technologies, privacy act compliance and proposals relating to the collection and use of personal information. He or she would submit an annual report to Congress on privacy issues and privacy impact assessment rules and oversight.
"Right now, there is nobody in the White House who has [the word] privacy in their title or their job description," said Peter Swire, privacy chief during the Clinton administration and a law professor at Ohio State University.
"Especially during the war on terrorism, there needs to be someone inside the White House who is working on these issues every day," Swire said. "When we left office, they never filled the position. Now this would be a congressional requirement, and it would be much harder for the White House to ignore the issue."
The commission would have two years to conduct a comprehensive study on the government's homeland security measures and how they relate to privacy and civil liberties. Commissioners would make recommendations on how agencies should assess the privacy implications of new technologies and review the use of personal data.
"We need a broader public debate on these new technologies and what it means for privacy," Swire said. "We have the war on terrorism, and we need a way to talk about preserving American values in the long term, and the commission can do that."
Meek said this bill, the sixth in a series of recent homeland security-related bills, would proactively head off any major privacy violations or problems. "We don't need to wait until we have a mountain of examples of individual privacy violations that will affect the Department of Homeland Security's efforts on terrorism," he said.
The desire for a governmentwide privacy czar and individual agency chiefs was addressed at a February House committee hearing. However, some privacy advocates argued that such officers aren't needed at agencies that don't often deal with personal data.
"I don't believe it would create more bureaucracy," Meek said. "When policy decisions are being made, if we see