Davis: No quick fixes

Mandated, one-size-fits-all approach to privacy is a step backward

Federal Computer Week's editorial "The Need for Privacy Officers" [FCW, June 27] is correct to make the connection between security and privacy. How information travels — and whom it travels to — is a significant concern for the federal government. How government balances the tension between privacy and security is a constant challenge.

I strongly believe privacy issues must be addressed. The way to ensure that privacy remains a priority for policy-makers, however, is to keep it under the domain of individual agencies' chief information officers and the Office of Management and Budget. The answer is certainly not to construct a new layer of bureaucracy in agencies, which the creation of individual chief privacy officers would do.

It is important to note that lawmakers snuck the provision for privacy officers into law in the 2005 omnibus appropriations bill without hearings, discussion or consideration of how those positions would fit with broader policy issues. The product is incoherent policy — a policy I opposed at the time and am working to overturn.

With chief privacy officers at each agency, a hodgepodge of information security policies would emerge and reinforce a stovepipe structure that I have aggressively tried to knock down. Stovepipes not only prevent agencies from sharing and managing information but also limit how effectively agencies can protect information. Lessons from recent years show the benefits of more flexible government structures and warn us to avoid inflexible hierarchies.

OMB, which focuses on governmentwide policy, and CIOs can most effectively ensure that privacy issues receive the attention they deserve. And agency inspectors general should have the latitude to do their jobs and engage those issues.

The separation of privacy and data collection responsibilities from the overall administration of federal information policy undermines the success of the Clinger-Cohen Act of 1996, which created CIOs. It also fails to recognize that information security concerns are addressed through laws such as the Federal Information Security Management Act, E-Government Act and Paperwork Reduction Act.

At its core, the establishment of agency chief privacy officers is a narrowly focused, one-size-fits-all approach to an issue that needs an integrated solution.

Agencies have dramatically different missions. They serve diverse customers and constituencies, and they vary in size and budgets. Some agencies might benefit from having a privacy officer, but many others would not. Those questions should be asked and answered before we write the law.

Davis (R-Va.) is chairman of the House Government Reform Committee.

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