Watchdogs want DHS privacy office investigation

A group of privacy watchdogs are pressing for a congressional investigation into the Department of Homeland Security's Chief Privacy Office. According to a letter to the House Homeland Security Committee from the Electronic Privacy Information Clearinghouse, American Civil Liberties Union and many others, DHS is unrivaled in its budget authority to develop and deploy new systems of surveillance. The document cites the agency's use of so-called state-based "fusion centers," whole body imaging, funding of CCTV surveillance, and suspicionless electronic border searches as examples of where DHS is allegedly eroding privacy protections.

The letter to Homeland Security Chairman Bennie Thompson and ranking member Peter King argues that the primary statutory duty of Mary Ellen Callahan, DHS's top privacy official is to assure "that the use of technologies sustain, and do not erode, privacy protections" but the office has not done so, focusing instead almost exclusively on the fourth statutory duty, conducting a "privacy impact assessment" on each department action. "[Callahan] has shown an extraordinary disregard for the statutory obligations of her office and the privacy interests of Americans," the letter states.

The groups go on to point out that "outreach is certainly important, but the job of chief privacy officer is not to provide public relations" for DHS -- the job is to protect citizens' privacy through investigation and oversight. "If an internal office cannot achieve this, then the situation calls for an independent office that can truly evaluate these programs and make recommendations in the best interests of the American public," they wrote. View the letter here (PDF).

DHS spokeswoman Sara Kuban told the Washington Post that the letter "reflects a lack of understanding about the role and responsibilities" of Callahan and her office. "The Privacy Office is designed to serve as an integral part -- from the earliest stages -- of the policy-making process at the Department, and to ensure that privacy protections are proactively built into the Department's systems and technologies," Kuban said.