Privacy experts see room for improvement from Obama

Privacy watchdogs today will give the Obama administration mixed reviews on its early performance for safeguarding privacy, civil liberties and the nation's cyber infrastructure.

A scorecard from the Electronic Privacy Information Center and a coalition of consumer, educational, library, labor and technology stakeholders should act as an "early warning system" for the administration, EPIC Associate Director Lillie Coney said Tuesday.

The scorecard will be unveiled at a National Press Club event. It follows a December push by the center and the Privacy Coalition for then-President-elect Obama to tackle identity theft, security breaches and the commercialization of personal data. The letter lauded Obama's early commitments to strengthen the FTC, to protect sensitive information and make sure homeland security databases are used in limited ways. A similar evaluation is expected soon from the American Civil Liberties Union.

"We recognize they came in with a heavy load but we also see that privacy is implicated in much of their agenda," Coney said. Privacy protections included in the $19 billion health information technology section of the economic stimulus package were a good example, she said. Now a pair of HHS advisory panels must preserve those protections as they develop policies and health IT certification requirements, Coney said.

Experts at the event will call for Obama to make "pro-privacy" appointments at the FTC, she said. The five-member agency, which is headed by Democrat Jon Leibowitz, has one vacancy and a second spot will emerge when the term of Commissioner Pamela Jones Harbour, an independent, expires this month. Republicans William Kovacic and J. Thomas Rosch serve on the panel. It can have no more than three commissioners from one political party by law.

On civil liberties, Obama's team "inherited a lot of questionable programs from the previous administration, and we just don't see them closing the door on some of those," Coney said. EPIC has problems with the REAL ID Act, the legislation approved after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks to enact federal standards for driver's licenses, the "no-fly list" and state-run intelligence gathering "fusion centers."

Other issues of concern among privacy watchdogs are the lack of a White House cybersecurity coordinator, a position Obama pledged to fill several months ago; revisions of federal policies on "cookie" software that tracks Web users' whereabouts; and agreements between agencies and social networking sites that could skirt Privacy Act requirements, Coney said.

Ed Mierzwinski of the U.S. Public Interest Research Group, who will speak at the event, will convey his gratitude for the administration's support of House Financial Services Chairman Barney Frank's proposed Consumer Financial Protection Agency.

The U.S. Chamber of Commerce on Tuesday launched a multimillion-dollar campaign aimed at torpedoing the idea, which it believes would place "crippling new regulations, increased credit costs, and taxes on dozens of industries."