Justice official to launch privacy panel

The Justice Department's recently arrived chief privacy officer said in an interview Monday she plans to launch an internal privacy and civil liberties board in two weeks.

The board will be made up of assistant or deputy director-level officials and will address the broad range of privacy issues that confront the department, said Jane Horvath, who assumed her job as the department's first chief privacy and civil liberties officer on Feb. 21.

Horvath told Government Executive that her "first and primary responsibility is to ensure that the department ensures the civil liberties of the American people."

She said she is working out her relationship with the department's Inspector General's Office to determine what types of privacy complaints she will receive, adding that she anticipates she'll handle broad, issue-related problems rather than complaints from individuals.

Horvath also plans to address Justice's use of commercial data for finding terrorists and standards for and oversight of mass data collection.

Her official duties include reviewing and overseeing the department's privacy operations, developing Justice's privacy policies and ensuring the compliance of privacy impact assessments, known as PIAs. Horvath also serves on the department's Data Integrity Board and its document committee.

The chief privacy officer position was created in response to a provision in the fiscal 2005 omnibus appropriations act that required agencies to designate an official to assess the government's disclosure of personal information, oversee information system privacy and ensure the legal and secure collection of data.

Outside observers told Government Executive that it will be important for Horvath to have a good rapport with Attorney General Alberto Gonzales.

Horvath said she is just getting to know Gonzales, and their relationship seems to be fine. She reports directly to Deputy Attorney General Paul McNulty.

Three attorneys report to her, and she said she plans to "leverage departmental resources" to accomplish her goals. Support personnel and a deputy chief privacy officer also work in her office.

Before arriving at Justice, Horvath worked at the United Kingdom-based consulting firm Privacy Laws & Business, where, as director of its Washington office, she was responsible for expanding the firm's U.S. privacy consulting operations. Prior to that, she was America Online's assistant general counsel, and general counsel of the AOL subsidiary Digital City Inc. She helped draft the company's first privacy policies.

Lisa Sotto, a partner at Hunton and Williams, a New York City law firm, said Horvath's biggest challenge is that she is the first person to hold her position. She could "take some life lessons" from Homeland Security's first chief information officer, Nuala O'Connor Kelly, who resigned in September 2005, Sotto said.

"They're not thinking about privacy unless someone hits them on the head with a two-by-four," Sotto said. "Her first challenge is to educate people at the Justice Department in order to get things flagged when they require her input."

Horvath said she considers Kelly a friend and has received good advice from her, particularly on the importance of building relationships with the privacy community.

The role of chief privacy officer is complicated and ranges from negotiator to educator to consultant, said Jim Dempsey, policy director of the Center for Democracy and Technology, a Washington-based privacy advocacy organization.

"She's not just the ombudsman who takes complaints," Dempsey said. "And she's not just the policy adviser or the writer of the rules and regulations."

While some have called for Horvath to take an active role in controversial issues such as the fight over domestic intelligence surveillance, she said such issues are outside her purview and that her role is focused on internal department operations.

Marc Rotenberg, executive director of the Electronic Privacy Information Center, a Washington public interest research center, said Horvath serves at an agency that he believes has not done enough to safeguard Americans' privacy rights, including enforcement of the 1974 Privacy Act and ensuring that investigative techniques are within constitutional boundaries.

But Jim Harper, director of information policy studies at the Cato Institute, a Washington think tank, said that the chief privacy officer job is at odds with the Justice Department's law enforcement mission.

"It's not that the department is off kilter," said Harper, who is meeting with Horvath Tuesday. "It's just what the department does. A privacy officer is going to be an apologist for privacy."

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