Taking the next step

Congress ought to require the Office of Management and Budget to create a chief privacy officer position. But OMB ought to create such a position without it being mandated by Congress.

A House judiciary subcommittee held hearings on the topic earlier this month, with former OMB official Sally Katzen, among others, advocating the creation of such a post. The same week, officials from the General Accounting Office and the American Civil Liberties Union reiterated their concerns about a proposed airline passenger screening system.

It's understandable that the topic makes Bush administration officials edgy. Privacy concerns always have the potential to undermine the administration's homeland security initiatives. They do not want to see other systems join the Defense Department's Total Information Awareness program on the privacy casualty list.

Establishing a chief privacy officer position in the Homeland Security Department was a good first step. DHS clearly needed someone to help the department seek a better balance between privacy and security, and privacy advocates last year praised DHS' selection of Nuala O'Connor Kelly as the right choice for the job.

Some lawmakers suggested that the Justice Department, which has a starring role in the war on terrorism, ought to be required to create a similar position. It should. But that debate only distracts us from a larger issue.

Homeland security may be the most visible threat to privacy, but it is hardly the only one. Across government, agencies continue to learn new ways to capture, analyze and share data on people and programs.

OMB, which has stepped up its oversight of technology programs in recent years, is in a perfect position to ensure that privacy is always top of mind. What the office needs, though, is someone to own that responsibility.

But a chief privacy officer cannot become a glorified file clerk, just another name on the routing slip as programs are proposed and reviewed. Instead, this person should be a privacy ombudsman — an employee of OMB but also an advocate for the concerns of individuals.

The administration would have less to fear from public debate in Congress or elsewhere if privacy concerns were given an adequate voice within its own halls before policies or programs ever saw the light of day.

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