Finding a balance
Whenever one discusses privacy issues, it is important to begin with a truism that has become cliche: The Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks changed this country's outlook on nearly every issue.
If you have waited in line at airport security checkpoints, for example, no doubt you have a clear understanding of how the landscape has changed.
Few issues, however, have been altered as significantly as the concerns about personal privacy.
There has always been a conflict between privacy and security, and that balance changed dramatically after Sept. 11. But citizens are becoming wary. At least two systems have made that philosophical debate very real — the Transportation Security Administration's Computer Assisted Passenger Prescreening System system and the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency's Terrorism Information Awareness program.
It is clear that the Bush administration is sensitive about even the slightest accusation that it is not cognizant of privacy issues.
Administration officials recently attacked the General Accounting Office for suggesting that agencies were not complying with the Privacy Act. In fact, two senior administration officials shot back an unusually detailed response that GAO's conclusions lacked factual basis.
Yet there is a sense that the administration is not concerned with balancing the two issues. For example, officials have decided not to appoint a chief privacy advocate at the Office of Management and Budget.
Unfortunately, few agencies have people watching the security/privacy balance. According to the Center for Democracy and Technology, only three agencies have designated privacy officers — the Homeland Security Department (the only one required by law), the Internal Revenue Service and the U.S. Postal Service.
An easy way to strike a balance between privacy and security would be to have agencies — including OMB — appoint privacy officers who can help ensure that such issues are considered.