Making privacy a priority

As the federal government continues to move more of its operations to the World Wide Web, privacy issues are moving front and center for federal Web-masters and agency leaders alike.

Despite a governmentwide privacy memo issued by the General Services Administration last year, agencies' sensitivity toward privacy concerns is uneven at best. Even the most rudimentary of privacy guidelines - the posting of a privacy notice that informs visitors to a federal Web site what personal information the agency may be collecting, such as the visitor's identity, the time the site was visited and the type of browser used - recently was found to be missing on several agency Web sites.

The Center for Democracy and Technology, an advocacy group in Washington, D.C., that follows how federal agencies protect individual privacy, last month named the departments of Health and Human Services and Veterans Affairs as two of more than a dozen agencies that had not clearly labeled and posted privacy policies on their Web sites.

Within days of the report's release, HHS had prominently posted on its home page a privacy notice that informed visitors that it would only collect personal information from visitors if the visitors provide the information. The VA later posted a similar notice. The CIA, which CDT specifically identified as posting a vague and possibly troublesome privacy policy, told FCW that it would post a policy notice soon.

Others thanked CDT for raising the issue so that it could be discussed openly with agency management.

While these agencies should have had privacy policies posted long ago, the fact that they responded so quickly indicates that the government is taking privacy on the Web more seriously. As CDT pointed out, if the Internet is to become what government envisions it could be - a medium to deliver services to the public and to allow the public to conduct business with its government - then agencies must take individual privacy seriously.

Only then will the larger public have the confidence needed to conduct business electronically with the federal government.

Of course, the tougher problems of privacy - particularly the balancing act between allowing easy access to personal information and protecting an individual's privacy - still must be solved.

But at least from this privacy policy exercise, some agencies show they want to do the right thing.

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