Serious on privacy

Thomas R. Temin

There's a scene in George Orwell's classic 1984 when protagonist Winston is asked how many fingers his interrogator is holding up (four). He is then asked, under grotesque duress, if the Party says 'four' is actually 'five,' how many then?

'Which do you wish: to persuade me that you see five, or really to see them?' demands the interrogator.

It's a little like that with agency privacy impact assessments, required under the E-Government Act'except that what they're supposed to see really is there. That is, do agencies simply try to convince the Office of Management and Budget they take privacy seriously? Or do they really take it seriously?

After all, someone experienced at this game can easily fulfill the requirement of the PIA, and yet have systems as full of holes as a tenement screen door.

OMB isn't revealing much detail of what it learned after examining 300 agency PIAs since last fall. But evidence is that agencies are making headway on privacy.

For a variety of reasons'law, regulation, visibility'the public sector is already more sensitive to privacy than the private sector. That alone isn't saying much: The private sector's record on privacy is terrible. But now it looks as if agencies' practices are supporting their sensitivity.

As GCN's Jason Miller reported last week, one reason is that privacy is so closely related to security. No system can protect citizens' private data unless the system is secure in the first place. And most agencies are way past the point of getting real about security.

The other day, my physical mail at home included a racy catalog of Playboy-branded products. I don't subscribe to Playboy, didn't want this catalog. Plus I have an 11-year-old daughter and 15-year-old son who like to retrieve the mail. Apparently, some company is playing fast and loose with its database.

Like many people, my privacy expectation for the private sector is low, but for government it is high. Thus, PIAs should be only the beginning of the federal privacy efforts.

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