In a letter to Congress today, a coalition of privacy advocates have called on Congress to investigate the DHS Privacy Office. The gravamen of their complaint is that the Privacy Office is insufficiently independent from the Department and isn't protecting privacy. Proof of this, they say, lies in the Privacy Office's approval of Privacy Impact Assessments for several programs (e.g. Whole Body Imaging) that allegedly erode privacy interests.
Talk about shooting the messenger. It's not as if the current Privacy Officer has a long-history of anti-privacy activity. Quite to the contrary. One has to wonder exactly what the privacy advocates are expecting from the Privacy Office? Do they really expect the creation of a system where the Privacy Officer can substitute his or her judgment on security necessity for that of the Secretary of Homeland Security (or the President, for that matter)? While that might be something the advocates hope for, its not likely in the cards anytime soon.
And as for their call for independence, the history of independence, at least here in the United States, is less than comforting. We are, after all, still waiting for the appointment of the Privacy and Civil Liberties Oversight Board (first called for in legislation in August 2007). And that same legislation formally enhanced the independence and powers of the very Privacy Office the critics are now complaining about — adding a probably unconstitutional direct Congressional reporting requirement and subpoena powers. So it really can't be the architecture of the system that is problematic.
Rather, the advocates real complaint seems to be that the Privacy Office doesn't just substitute its view of the security requirements of the United States for that of the Cabinet Officer under which it serves. To which the rest of us can only say "huh?"
This piece was originally posted on Skating On Stilts.