Privacy law experts for hire

From the Internet to banking, from health records to consumer spending habits, Congress is pondering a profusion of laws that aim to protect privacy.

At least nine new laws have been introduced this year, adding to the more than 30 introduced in 2001.

This passion for privacy is spawning a new industry — contract privacy practitioners.

Enter Paul Paez. Former president of the Privacy Council, a Texas-based consulting firm, Paez has launched Privastaff, a "specialty staffing firm" that provides businesses and government agencies with temporary privacy specialists — from lawyers and database architects to application developers and privacy technologists.

Paez, who is setting up offices in San Jose, Calif., San Francisco and Washington, D.C., said laws such as the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA) of 1996 and the USA Patriot Act passed last fall require businesses and agencies to adhere to a multitude of new rules regarding privacy.

HIPAA, for example, spells out standards for keeping personal health data private when it is handled and transmitted in electronic form. The Patriot Act, on the other hand, rolls back some privacy protections, making it easier for government authorities to collect personal information by tapping phone lines, monitoring Internet activities and issuing subpoenas.

The effect of the Patriot Act "is the opposite of most privacy legislation," Paez said. "Thus, it compounds the problem of guarding the privacy of transactions while still meeting government requirements to track transactions."

Are agency officials and business leaders following all of this? Paez expects that they aren't and bets that many of them will be eager for expert assistance.

"Lots of work needs to be done at the agencies," Paez said, from "simple nuts-and-bolts compliance requirements" to ambitious business practice re-engineering. "I suspect most government agencies are understaffed or don't have the special resources needed to address" the proliferation of privacy problems.

"Government agencies are trying to comply. Everyone wants to comply, but actually, complying is hard," he said.

Hard enough, he hopes, that Privastaff will flourish.

But government hiring rules may place Privastaff's personnel off-limits for most agency jobs, according to Henry Wong, a contracting specialist in the Office of Personnel Management.

"We don't do a lot of that," Wong said when asked whether agencies hire temporary workers.

Short-term workers typically work for companies that have been hired for specific projects, such as installing a new computer system. Occasionally, an agency will hire some temporary workers such as secretaries, but it's unusual, he said.

Might the plethora of privacy legislation change that?

"It's generating a whole new industry," said attorney Jim Harper. "A lot of the new regulations don't actually protect privacy, but they generate a lot of work for lawyers and others" in the privacy business, said Harper, who is editor of the Web-based privacy think tank Privacilla.org.

Ironically, he said, while congressional concerns about privacy are rising, the public's apprehension has peaked. Consumers have moved beyond the point of being outraged that so much of their personal information is collected, analyzed and sold, and have accepted the fact.

If more privacy legislation passes, it will probably "be too much, too late," he said. But it probably will be a boon for Paez and Privastaff.

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