DHS chief privacy officer stepping down

Nuala O'Connor Kelly is stepping down as chief privacy officer for the Homeland Security Department to accept a position as head of privacy issues for General Electric Co. of Fairfield, Conn., DHS officials confirmed today.

Today is Kelly's final day in the DHS post, which she has held since April 2003. The department named Maureen Cooney, Kelly's chief of staff, as acting chief privacy officer.

"O'Connor Kelly has done a commendable job as Homeland Security's first chief privacy officer, considering the limited independence of the job as it was created by Congress," said Barry Steinhardt, director of the American Civil Liberties Union's Technology and Liberty Project. "Her replacement must have a dedicated commitment to ensuring DHS's programs respect a substantial zone of privacy for all Americans, even while they try to enhance our nation's security."

Congress created the DHS Privacy Office in 2002 when it established the department. Kelly set policy, reviewed departmental programs for privacy impacts and implemented the Privacy Act of 1974, which regulates how federal data is held and secured.

However, many civil liberties advocates say the position has too little authority to compel cooperation in investigating privacy complaints. The office must clear reports through the DHS secretary and must rely on voluntary compliance with requests for documents.

Kelly won praise for her independence in producing critical reports on the Transportation Security Department's Computer-Assisted Passenger Prescreening System, which she judged as inadequately protective of privacy.

Legislation known as the Power Act, H.R. 3041, sponsored by Rep. Bennie Thompson (D-Miss.), would provide the DHS chief privacy officer with subpoena powers and make other modifications to give the post greater independence.

The bill has been endorsed by the ACLU. "Congress must give the DHS privacy office more teeth so it can serve as a true check and balance in an agency with enormous powers over many areas of Americans' lives," ACLU Legislative Counsel Tim Sparapani said in a press release. "In particular, Congress should pass the Power Act."

About the Author

Alice Lipowicz is a staff writer covering government 2.0, homeland security and other IT policies for Federal Computer Week.

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