DHS seeks to ease privacy fears

Homeland Security Department officials say they hope their new privacy protection principles for research projects will address concerns some privacy advocates have raised about the programs.

Homeland Security Department officials say they hope their new privacy protection principles for research projects will address concerns some privacy advocates have raised about the programs. 

DHS released the “Principles for Implementing Privacy Protections in S&T Research Projects” last week as part of its 2008 report to Congress on the department’s data-mining technology and policy. The principles will provide a framework by which DHS program managers can assess the privacy effects of proposed research projects, including those that engage in data mining and use personally identifiable information, DHS said.

The principles — formulated by DHS’ Privacy Office and its Science and Technology Directorate — would require the directorate to provide a clear statement of a project’s purpose and only use personally identifiable information for that purpose.

Researchers would also have to use as little of that data as possible. In addition, the principles call for the department to train employees on the privacy policy and establish a redress program for people who believe their information was used inappropriately.

Officials developed the principles in response to concerns expressed during a public workshop DHS held in July to discuss privacy protections in the government’s use of data mining.   

“It really was a broad scope of stakeholders’ comments and concerns and input that caused us to come up with the list of principles,” said Brad Buswell, DHS’ deputy undersecretary for science and technology.

Barry Steinhardt, director of the Technology and Liberty Program at the American Civil Liberties Union, said the principles represented a step forward, but the directorate’s projects account for only a small part of the programs that are troubling.

Steinhardt said he wanted DHS to be more consistent in filing required privacy notices but acknowledged that the principles could be a sign that the department’s approach is going to change.

“The thing that still worries me is that DHS has been up until now a highly secretive body,” Steinhardt said.

About the Author

Ben Bain is a reporter for Federal Computer Week.

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