"I would much prefer focusing on the physical security ... than having some secret government file that is branding me as a security risk," David Sobel, general counsel for the Electronic Privacy Information Center, said during the forum sponsored by the International Association of Privacy Professionals.
He noted that some lawmakers-including Sen. Edward Kennedy, D-Mass., and Rep. Don Young, R-Alaska-have been detained at airports because their names matched those on terrorist watch lists.
Nuala O'Connor Kelly, chief privacy officer at the Homeland Security Department, said her office seeks "transparency" of government activities that affect privacy and cited "privacy impact assessments" as an example of her agency's openness.
But Peter Swire, a policy professor at Ohio State University and a former privacy adviser in the Clinton administration, argued that transparency "has not been a hallmark of recent policy."
Responding to an audience member who raised concerns about Secure Flight, a government plan to collect airline passenger records to screen for potential terrorists, Kelly distanced herself a bit from the current plan. "I hope it won't surprise you that I agree with you," she said. The government, she said, needs to answer the question, "What is the least amount of data that you need to make that program run?"
Kelly praised new security-related technologies, such as biometrics and radio-frequency identification (RFID), but also raised concerns about their efficacy. She said they could be misused, adding that there is a "long way to go" to create ground rules for these systems and educate people about them.
Swire raised doubts about portions of the Bush administration's approach to privacy. He described as "window dressing" an executive order issued by President Bush in August creating a Civil Liberties Board, as recommended by the commission that investigated the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. Swire said he thinks the board will be powerless and instead backs a Senate proposal that would create a board with more power and autonomy.
Jim Harper, director of information policy studies at the Cato Institute, said the threats resulting from government use of personal data "are strong."
Paul Rosenzweig, a senior legal research fellow at the Heritage Foundation, agreed. "Every new authorization of power to the government brings with it the potential for abuse," he said. But the answer to privacy concerns lies in "end-to-end oversight," such as audits and training. "I think that we should be very, very scared of government," he said. But he added that "it's not prohibition [that's needed]; it's regulation of government."