Homeland Security Names First Privacy Czar

Nuala O’Connor Kelly, currently the privacy officer and chief counsel for the Department of Commerce’s Technology Administration, has been named the nation’s first privacy czar at the new Department of Homeland Security (DHS). Prior to joining the government, she was the privacy officer for online ad firm DoubleClick.

At DHS, O’Connor Kelly will be responsible for privacy development and enforcement, including oversight authority of the controversial Computer Assisted Passenger Prescreening System II (CAPPS II) program at the Transportation Security Administration (TSA).

When Congress created the DHS last year, it required that the new department have a privacy officer to maintain the privacy protections of U.S. citizens and that the new department’s databases operate within federal privacy guidelines.

Since the bill was passed, Congress and privacy groups have criticized the Bush administration’s efforts to create programs such as CAPPS II, an airline screening process, and the Pentagon’s Total Information Awareness (TIA) initiative, a data mining program.

O’Connor Kelly, 34, saw her share of privacy controversy while she was DoubleClick. The Federal Trade Commission (FTC) investigated the company over complaints that DoublClick was violating the privacy rights of Internet users by improperly sharing personal user data. Class action suits followed the FTC probe.

DoubleClick ultimately settled the lawsuits and eventually satisfied the FTC it was complying with privacy laws. Part of the company’s settlement included creating a privacy compliance division, which O’Connor Kelly ran.

Last month, the Bush administration revealed the TSA plans to scan government and commercial databases for potential terrorist threats when a passenger makes flight reservations. Under the program, airline passengers will be required to provide their full name plus address, phone number and date of birth.

Once that information is entered, the airline computer reservation system will automatically link to the TSA for a computer background check on the traveler that can include a credit, banking history and criminal background check.

The TSA will then assign a red, yellow or green score to the passenger based on the agency’s risk assessment of the traveler. The score color will then be encrypted on the passenger’s boarding pass. A green score will allow passengers to proceed through the usual airport security checks. Passengers with a yellow score will be subjected to additional security checks and a red score will ground the passenger.

Delta Airlines began testing the program in March at three undisclosed airports. TSA will conduct the actual risk assessments.

The TIA program is a project of the Information Awareness Office (IAO), which is under the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) and is headed by former Reagan administration national security advisor John Poindexter. The program aims to capture the “information signature” of people in order to track potential terrorists and has been sharply criticized by privacy and civil liberties groups.

The IAO’s stated mission is to “imagine, develop, apply, integrate, demonstrate and transition information technologies, components and prototype, closed-loop, information systems that will counter asymmetric threats by achieving total information awareness useful for preemption; national security warning; and national security decision making.”

Controversy over the TIA prompted Congress to cut off temporarily cut off funding to the program.

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