Privacy Coalition: Scrap the DHS Privacy Officer

by on October 23, 2009 · 16 comments

A large group of privacy advocacy groups and individuals sent a letter to the leadership of the House Homeland Security Committee today, suggesting that the role of Chief Privacy Officer at the Department of Homeland Security should be scrapped.

The DHS CPO has shown an extraordinary disregard for the statutory obligations of her office and the privacy interests of Americans. Outreach is certainly important, but the job of Chief Privacy Officer is not to provide public relations for the Department of Homeland Security. The job as defined in the statute is to protect the privacy of American citizens, through investigation and oversight. If an internal office cannot achieve this, then the situation calls for an independent office that can truly evaluate these programs and make recommendations in the best interests of the American public.

The current CPO, Mary Ellen Callahan, has not been on the job long enough to lay all these concerns at her feet, but the substance of the complaint is valid. Does the Privacy Office actually help protect privacy, or has it, over years, favored the paperwork function over privacy protection, falling into the role of apologist for DHS programs?

I serve on the DHS Privacy Committee, which advises the CPO. The views stated here, of course, are my own.

I wrote on Privacilla in 2001: “As a management matter, government privacy officers may become antagonistic to the agencies with whom they deal, and lose effectiveness, or they may be captured by agencies and become professional apologists for government erosion of privacy.”

And when I joined the committee four years later, I expressed my concern with the potential for co-option, saying in a Privacilla press release: “I have asked friends and family members to beat me up if I change or mute my advocacy for privacy, civil liberties, and freedom.”

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