IRS privacy czar protects public trust
- By Diane Frank
- Feb 08, 2004
Maya Bernstein started out as a geek pursuing a double degree in computer science and math at
the University of Michigan. It took her less than a year to discover that her passion was how people relate to these fields. So she created a new degree program and called it technology and
Few topics embody those two subjects better than privacy, particularly in the context of computers and the Internet, she said. In August 2003, Bernstein joined the Internal Revenue Service as the agency's chief privacy officer, a job she said was too tempting to pass up.
She started her career in information privacy at the Office of Management and Budget fresh out of college, overseeing governmentwide implementation of privacy policies as the Clinton administration's only official devoted to the subject.
"Unlike OMB, [IRS officials] are delivering a real program," Bernstein said. "It's exciting to be where you have an agency that has a significant amount of data that people care about."
That's not to downplay the role that OMB plays in federal privacy matters. In fact, she keeps in contact with many people who have served in the White House's management agency.
But her role in protecting Americans' privacy has mushroomed into a critical position. She is committed to learning as much about the IRS' practices and needs as possible and to balancing the sometimes conflicting advisory and enforcement roles of a privacy officer.
She gained perspective on agencies' privacy concerns by attending meetings with senior agency executives to determine which projects would go forward and which would have to go back to the drawing board because of privacy concerns, she said.
A line drawing of the Executive Office Building given to her as a departure
gift from OMB hangs on the wall behind her desk, and she describes with detailed gusto the beauty and history of the building's interior. With the same enthusiasm, she discusses the nuances of putting privacy law and policy into practice in the world of databases that electronically pass personal information between citizens and the government.
"While Maya and I did not overlap in the information policy shop at OMB," said Franklin Reeder, chairman of the federal Information Security and Privacy Advisory Board, "I came to know her work subsequently and have been impressed with her intellect and passionate commitment to information privacy."
During his tenure at OMB as chief of information policy, Reeder helped develop the Privacy Act of 1974 and the Computer Security Act of 1987, both of which governed the federal privacy world until the E-Government Act of 2002.
IRS officials routinely perform impact assessments on information systems and programs, in part because of the nature of the agency and its mission. There is little information more sensitive to individuals and companies than what is included in their tax returns. Many people in government and in the private sector would love to get their hands on that information. For example, the Senate Finance Committee asked the IRS to turn over confidential tax and financial records in January from Muslim charities and foundations that are suspected of supplying support to terrorist groups. The request is still pending.
Bernstein rarely handles such negotiations with outside organizations; they are typically left to the disclosure office and others. The culture and increased awareness of privacy, however, come from dealing with that information, and such issues permeate the agency, she said.
The E-Government Act requires impact assessments, and her top goal for the
foreseeable future is to continue making them.
"Because we are thought of as a leader, I certainly want to enhance that reputation...and to be helpful to other agencies," Bernstein said. "I'd like to be a go-to office in terms of privacy questions."
The Maya Bernstein file
Position: Chief privacy advocate at the Internal Revenue Service.
Education: A bachelor's degree in technology and society from the University
of Michigan and a law degree from American University's Washington College of Law in Washington, D.C.
Government experience: Served as policy analyst and then senior policy analyst at the Office of Management and Budget from 1990 to 1999. She was an independent administrative law and information policy consultant from 2002 to 2003, advising the Federal Emergency Management Agency, the State Department and others.
Legal life: Served as a law clerk in the District of Columbia Court of Appeals for Judge Vanessa Ruiz from 1999 to 2000. She practiced as an associate on legislative and regulatory issues at the Washington, D.C., law firm of Fried, Frank, Harris, Shriver and Jacobson LLP from 2000 to 2002.
Outside the job: Studying for her bat mitzvah and mourning the Michigan Wolverines' loss in the New Year's Day Rose Bowl.
Previous contact with the IRS: Has been participating in the Volunteer Income Tax Assistance
program, working with low-income taxpayers in Washington, D.C., since 1998.