Homeland Security's privacy chief resigns

By Sarah Lai Stirland

September 28, 2005

Nuala O'Connor Kelly, the Homeland Security Department's first chief privacy officer, announced Wednesday that she is resigning and leaving the department by the end of the week.

"It's been a long time coming," she said in an interview. "I've been in the administration since 2001, and I've seen and done a lot. I've built the office, and it's up and running."

O'Connor Kelly made the announcement at a sparsely attended Homeland Security Data Privacy and Integrity Advisory Committee meeting at a resort hotel in Bellingham, Wash. One conference attendee reported that O'Connor Kelly said she had received an offer from the private sector that she could not refuse. She later told Technology Daily that the job is with General Electric.

Maureen Cooney will become the acting chief privacy officer as of Oct. 1. Cooney is currently the office's chief of staff and director of international privacy policy.

O'Connor Kelly became the chief privacy officer in mid-April 2003. During her tenure, she created a functional office that was supposed to ensure that all new department technologies and processes used for security purposes complied with the nation's many federal privacy laws. She was a high-profile figure who often spoke publicly about the role of her office.

Her tenure also was marked by several controversial incidents, some of which sparked criticism from privacy advocates and certain members of Congress. Though she and members of her office often have said they tried to consider privacy laws before designing new technologies and processes, parts of the department often came under fire for violating their own policies.

This year, for example, the pre-screening system for airline passengers run by the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) violated its own policy of not using information about passengers collected by commercial data brokers. Four Alaskans are suing TSA because they want to know how the agency used the information collected about them.

Her announcement sparked mixed responses from privacy advocates.

Bill Scannell, a long-time privacy advocate and activist who is a spokesman for the Alaskans, said he had "great hopes" that her office would prevent anti-privacy initiatives planned by the department, "but I haven't seen that. I'm sure there were battles that were fought inside that we never heard about ... [but] her role has been pretty much reduced to flak absorption for [department] screw-ups, and TSA in particular."

Jim Harper, the Cato Institute's director of information policy studies, who serves on Homeland Security's privacy advisory committee, characterized O'Connor Kelly's tenure as "better than expected." He noted that she was not popular within the department after she issued a report criticizing it for secretly accepting passenger information from the airline JetBlue.

"At various times, she had serious fights with agency people," from which she emerged "seething with rage," he said.

The American Civil Liberties Union praised O'Connor Kelly in a statement but quickly added that Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff should not use her departure as an opportunity to weaken the position. The group also urged Congress to pass a bill sponsored by Rep. Bennie Thompson, D-Miss., that would boost the powers of her replacement.

By Sarah Lai Stirland

September 28, 2005