Serious about privacy

The basics of a PIA

Postal Service chief privacy officer Zoe Strickland has outlined the five steps to construct a privacy impact assessment.

  • Develop a questionnaire. Each questionnaire should solicit information about a system under development, addressing plans for privacy and security. It also should capture, assess and drive data practices.

  • Define the scope. The assessment should cover all systems within a particular program, as well as all technologies being used to collect, create or manage information.

  • Establish the schedule. The agency should plan when work on the assessment should start and be completed.

  • Determine roles and accountability. Employees should know what is expected of them and who will sign off on the finished assessment.

  • Define how the process works. Each objective should be clearly identified and the PIA process, including approach to risk management, should be easily repeatable.
  • OMB's Eva Kleederman says PIAs should cover all areas of an IT project.

    J. Adam Fenster

    Completing a privacy impact assessment 'shouldn't just be a check box to OMB to say, 'We've done it.' '

    'OMB's Karen Evans

    J. Adam Fenster

    Agencies lag in assessing the impact of systems upgrades

    Agencies are making strides in e-government, but ensuring the privacy of citizens' data has proved to be a struggle.

    In reviewing agencies' privacy impact assessments for the fiscal 2005 budget, the Office of Management and Budget found that few agencies have adequately considered how new or upgraded systems could compromise the privacy of citizens who submit personal information.

    'When we talk about e-government, citizens really do want it faster, cheaper and now,' said Karen Evans, OMB administrator for e-government and IT. 'But they also expect us to secure the data as well. That is balancing we need to do. That is the challenge for us.'

    The E-Government Act of 2002 required agencies to conduct privacy assessments. The first round was due last September with agencies' 2005 budget submissions. In the more than 300 assessments submitted, agencies struggled to integrate privacy efforts with their IT business cases, said an OMB official who requested anonymity.

    It's too soon to determine what effect merely writing the assessments has had on agencies' efforts to protect privacy, but the process is more than an exercise in paperwork, officials said.

    'It shouldn't just be a check box to OMB to say 'We've done it,' ' Evans said. Agencies, she said, should think seriously about how they will use citizens' data and incorporate that thinking as they plan new systems and upgrades.

    Agencies also are supposed to take that approach to information security, incorporating it into business cases for major IT projects.

    The E-Government Act's privacy provisions were intended to make systems development a multidisciplinary effort, involving systems owners, IT specialists, and security and privacy experts, the OMB official said.

    Eva Kleederman, an OMB policy analyst working on privacy issues, said at a recent conference that an assessment must be a multidisciplinary effort in which privacy officials and IT officials work closely together.

    'The PIAs must bring to bear technical, legal and programmatic expertise,' she said at a discussion on privacy hosted by the Council for Excellence in Government. 'All of the areas must work hand in glove in doing the PIAs.'

    OMB would not discuss specific agency progress on PIAs, but several agencies, such as IRS and the Postal Service, are widely considered among the leaders in protecting privacy.

    'We have integrated our privacy impact assessments with our cybersecurity accreditation and certification processes,' said Zaida Candelario, lead senior analyst in the IRS Office of the Privacy Advocate. 'It gives us more teeth because program managers know they can't move forward without a PIA.'

    The IRS also conducts privacy awareness training for all employees and contractors, including a special session for software developers.
    The tax agency uses metrics to gauge the effectiveness of its privacy efforts. Candelario said IT employees and contractors test the privacy aspects of their systems after they go online to be sure no information is vulnerable.

    Once the IRS assessment identifies the risks, IT managers work with developers to mitigate them in future systems. If conflicting regulations or a lack of funds prevent the agency from addressing a risk directly, Candelario said, officials will monitor the situation closely to protect private data.

    Ari Schwartz, an associate director of the Center for Democracy and Technology, a Washington nonprofit group, said few agencies have made their PIAs public. He cited the Small Business Administration, which has made all its assessments public, and the Census Bureau, which provides copies of its 20 assessments on request. Also, the IRS is starting to put its reviews online.

    'We need to get the PIAs cleared and redacted to take out any sensitive IT security information,' said Maya Bernstein, the IRS' privacy advocate, at a recent conference sponsored by the International Association of Privacy Professionals. 'We plan to put up the PIAs in [Adobe] Portable Document Format.'

    Even though agencies have been slow to put PIAs online, implementation of the E-Government Act has strengthened federal privacy programs, Schwartz said.

    'We know of several projects that went through different iterations with their PIAs,' Schwartz said. 'And we know of some projects that did not send in PIAs, and OMB sent the business cases back so that the assessments could be completed.'

    The Homeland Security Department's U.S. Visitor and Immigrant Status Indicator System and the Interior Department's Recreation One-Stop were among the high-profile projects that repeatedly worked to improve their privacy reviews.

    More accountability

    For the 2006 budget process, OMB is working with the CIO Council to identify best practices that agencies used to develop their 2005 assessments.

    OMB also will revise Circular A-11, which provides direction on the budget submission process, to be more specific about when an assessment is required, Kleederman said.

    But Schwartz and other experts said agencies also need to hire chief privacy officers to improve accountability.

    Sally Katzen, a former OMB official in the Clinton administration, said at a recent hearing before the House Judiciary Committee's Subcommittee on Commercial and Administrative Law that Congress should consider expanding the number of statutory privacy offices.

    Currently, only Homeland Security is required to have a privacy office, but Katzen suggested that all cabinet agencies have them. At least, she said, agencies with special sensitivity to privacy issues, such as the Social Security Administration and the departments of Defense, Health and Human Services, Justice, Treasury and Veterans Affairs, should add a privacy office.

    Recently, the House passed the Justice authorization bill, which required the agency to name a chief privacy officer.

    'With the imprimatur of Congress, these offices can achieve status and increased influence, and gain the respect that the privacy officer has enjoyed at DHS,' Katzen said.


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