Security official defends satellite surveillance plan

Official says DHS has conducted a full "privacy impact assessment" on the recently unveiled National Applications Office.

The Homeland Security Department has gone "above and beyond what is called for by law" in assessing potential privacy implications of its plan to coordinate the use of satellites for domestic surveillance, a high-ranking official told the agency's privacy advisory committee Wednesday.

John Kropf, Homeland Security's director of international privacy programs, said the department has conducted a full "privacy impact assessment" on the recently unveiled National Applications Office, even though security systems are exempt from the federal rule requiring such action.

His boss, Hugo Teufel, briefed the House Homeland Security Committee on the initiative earlier this month. The committee's chairman, Bennie Thompson, D-Miss., and others were outraged that they had not been told about the project before its existence was reported in the media.

Kropf indicated that the agency's 19-member privacy panel was kept in the dark until now. "You may have read about this in the paper," he told committee before briefly describing the plan. No members pressed him for additional details.

In an interview with Technology Daily, the group's chairman, Howard Beales, confirmed that he and his colleagues had not previously been consulted. "We can't be brought in on everything. They have to be selective about where they think we can be helpful," said Beales, a former director of the FTC's Consumer Protection Bureau.

The satellite data-sharing already exists elsewhere in the government and "all that's new in the proposal is to bring this process into Homeland Security and give it a little bit more structure than it has now," he said. "In many ways it's more restricted use."

The department also has been busy responding to a July report from the Government Accountability Office that called for the designation of privacy officials in each Homeland Security mission area. That is "something we're slowly but steadily developing," Kropf said.

GAO additionally recommended timelier reporting by the agency. "We should be on track for later this year to have our next annual report in on time," he said. Meanwhile, the agency is weighing the report's call for a biannual review of "systems of records notices."

A bill signed last month by President Bush, which granted Homeland Security's privacy office limited subpoena power and strengthened its relationship with the agency's inspector general, is still being digested by staff, Kropf said.

Under the law, his office also will have a "close reporting and coordinating role" with members of the new, independent entity that will replace the controversial White House Privacy and Civil Liberties Oversight Board, which is expected to close "before Christmas," he said.

The privacy office also has been busy preparing and disseminating internal guidance, Kropf said. A memorandum on reducing the use of Social Security numbers went out in June, and a report on the mining of databases for information on suspected terrorists was distributed in July.

A privacy technical implementation primer also has just been released agency-wide, he told the advisory committee, and a document that provides advice on how to respond in the event of a privacy breach is "imminent in issuance."