Advocates call for privacy chief

CDT letter to Daniels

Privacy advocates are calling on the Office of Management and Budget to name a federal leader for privacy issues "as soon as possible."

The Center for Democracy and Technology spearheaded the letter from eight organizations to OMB Director Mitchell Daniels Jr. It urges the administration to fill the position of chief privacy counselor that has been vacant since Peter Swire left at the end of 2000.

In March 1999, President Clinton created the position within OMB's Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs to serve as a central point for the government's privacy policy and activities. The position expired with the end of the Clinton administration.

"While we agree that a chief privacy counselor is not a suitable end solution to address all of the privacy issues facing the United States," the letter states, "the position has been effective in proactively addressing privacy issues within the federal government and serving as a liaison to the privacy, consumer and business communities."

OMB officials have said that the administration does not plan to name a privacy adviser and instead will keep such responsibilities within OIRA as part of the organization's regular duties.

Ari Schwartz, policy analyst for the Center for Democracy and Technology, noted that the privacy function "was a failure when it wasn't separated...and though we think it should be kept within OMB, we think it should be separated out and someone made specifically responsible."

In 2000, Swire dealt with internal government issues such as federal Web sites' use of "cookies" — small pieces of software placed on a visitor's computer to identify the user on return visits to the site. Swire also led efforts on federal rules that affect the private sector, such as measures to protect patients' medical records in the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act of 1996.

The privacy rules under HIPAA were to take effect Feb. 28, but were initially delayed by the Bush administration. On April 12, however, President Bush allowed the rule to go forward, with plans to recommend improvements in the future.

While OIRA staff members know about such privacy issues, public interest groups fear that without a single person in charge of these initiatives, privacy will not receive the attention and importance that it deserves, Schwartz said.

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