Program managers are also security managers

Federal program managers are the first line of defense for preserving data privacy and security. If they fail, people will lose trust in the government.

With that in mind, privacy experts advise managers to build data privacy safeguards into federal programs at the outset. Program managers must reduce risk by following privacy and security best practices at the earliest phase of developing information systems, said Robert Wright, principal at Merrill, a consulting company, and former chief of the plans and program management unit at the FBI’s cyber division. Wright spoke at the Program Management Summit 2007, sponsored by the E-Gov Institute and 1105 Government Information Group, which owns Federal Computer Week.

Wright said “program management is about managing risk.” He advised program managers to include data privacy and security on the agenda at all meetings. He also offered these tips:

  • If you think data privacy and security are important, so will your team.

  • Avoid data privacy shortcuts because they lead to trouble.

Federal program managers must also produce privacy impact assessments when they develop or procure information systems that use or collect personal data, said Sally Wallace, associate deputy assistant secretary for privacy and records management at the Veterans Affairs Department. Those assessments help safeguard data privacy throughout an information system’s life cycle, Wallace said.

For the most part, program managers are familiar with data security policy and procedures at their agencies, she said. But a VA data theft in the past year made clear how critical those policies and procedures are for protecting data.

Program managers “know what to do, but now they really realize how important” those policies and procedures are, Wallace said.

A VA employee violated the department’s privacy and security policies when he took home a laptop PC and flash device containing personal data on 26.5 million veterans. Not adhering to policies and procedures had consequences for VA when someone stole that computer from the employee’s home in May 2006.

“VA lost the trust of our customers,” Wallace said. Survey research by Poneman Institute, a data privacy think tank, found the VA was one of the 10 most-trusted federal agencies before the laptop theft, she said. However, after the highly publicized theft, VA dropped to the bottom half of the ranking.

The Office of Management and Budget responded to the VA incident by directing agencies to protect personal information and their organizations’ reputation by following good data security and privacy practices. Program managers must now decide whether the use of Social Security numbers in their systems is necessary, Wallace said.

About the Author

Mary Mosquera is a reporter for Federal Computer Week.

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