Coalition seeks investigation of Homeland Security privacy office

By Spencer S. Hsu
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Privacy advocates have asked lawmakers to investigate the Department of Homeland Security office in charge of protecting Americans' privacy, saying it has shown "an extraordinary disregard" for its duty.

In a letter sent Friday to the House Homeland Security Committee, 21 organizations and seven people belonging to the Privacy Coalition say the department's chief privacy officer has seen its role as enabling, rather than curbing, government surveillance and intelligence programs.

"The job of Chief Privacy Officer is not to provide public relations for the Department of Homeland Security," stated the coalition letter, whose signers included the American Civil Liberties Union, Gun Owners of America, former congressman Robert L. Barr Jr. (R-Ga.) and libertarians inspired by Rep. Ron Paul (R-Tex.), a former presidential candidate. The Electronic Privacy Information Center, a public interest group in Washington, organized the coalition.

Committee Chairman Bennie Thompson (D-Miss.) said the panel is aware of the issues raised by the letter. He added that it will review calls to investigate whether the agency has met the law's requirement of ensuring "that the use of technologies sustain, and do not erode, privacy protections," and if not, to create an independent oversight agency.

DHS spokeswoman Sara Kuban said: "The letter reflects a lack of understanding about the role and responsibilities" of Chief Privacy Officer Mary Ellen Callahan and her office.

"The Privacy Office is designed to serve as an integral part -- from the earliest stages -- of the policy-making process at the Department, and to ensure that privacy protections are proactively built into the Department's systems and technologies," Kuban said in an e-mail. A "European-style" independent officer would be unable to influence policies before they were enacted, she added.

Specifically, critics said the DHS office in the past year has assessed privacy effects of practices such as suspicionless searches of travelers' laptop computers and other electronic devices at border checkpoints, and funding for state and local police intelligence analysis centers, but has done little to scale them back.

DHS also apparently could not stop such practices as "whole body imaging" at airports. The government says such images cannot be recorded and are analyzed by security officers at remote locations who never see the passengers. Privacy advocates are skeptical that the technology will not be abused.

The rebuke comes amid growing frustration among civil liberties groups that President Obama has not made greater changes to post-Sept. 11, 2001, security measures put in place by his predecessor, George W. Bush. In recent days, privacy advocates have criticized the White House's support for renewing the USA Patriot Act.

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