A panel in the House of Representatives is scheduled to vote this week on a plan to add a chief privacy officer to the planned agency.
A draft of the legislation seen by CNET News.com states that the Secretary of Homeland Security must appoint a privacy officer to ensure that new technologies "sustain and do not erode" privacy protections and to verify that the agency's massive databases operate within federal guidelines.
On Tuesday, the Bush administration told a House subcommittee that it was open to the idea, which key legislators have endorsed.
"I think privacy is a very important function. If you bring us a proposal, I imagine that we would look at it very seriously," Mark Everson, controller of the Office of Management and Budget, told panel Chairman Bob Barr, R-Ga.
In response, Barr suggested that the privacy position could be written in a flexible way that would not require Senate confirmation. "I'd be hard-pressed to argue against that," Everson said.
Rep. Maxine Waters, D-Calif., said she is concerned with the scope of a Homeland Security Department, which would combine 22 agencies including the Secret Service, the Coast Guard, the Federal Emergency Management Agency and part of the FBI's National Infrastructure Protection Center.
"I don't agree with Mr. Barr very much, but I kind of like him heading this subcommittee because he is a protector of privacy and civil liberties--and that makes up for all the other stuff that he's not," Waters said. "I'm very suspicious when people start to talk about flexibility and new powers that won't be abused by this administration...We've got to press hard and look at this flexibility."
The draft seen by News.com says the privacy officer will be responsible for "evaluating legislative proposals involving collection, use, and disclosure of personal information by the federal government" to ensure consistency with privacy laws. In addition, the officer must prepare an annual report to Congress identifying privacy complaints raised by the public and how the department responded.
The full House Judiciary committee is scheduled to vote on the proposal Wednesday or Thursday. After that, it goes to a special panel chaired by House Majority Leader Dick Armey, R-Texas, that will work out a final version of the plan.
"Mr. Armey is very supportive of all efforts to ensure that privacy laws are upheld and strengthened when they need to be," Richard Diamond, a spokesman for Armey, said Wednesday.
After initially opposing the idea of a Cabinet-level agency for homeland security, Bush endorsed it in a televised address last month. Congress is scheduled to vote on the plan before its August recess.
Peter Swire, a top privacy official under President Clinton, told Barr's panel that the existing proposal includes few privacy safeguards. In written testimony, Swire called the bill "a recipe for essentially unrestricted sharing of sensitive personal information, with no apparent incentives to limit such sharing and no remedies if the sharing goes too far."
Swire, who has reviewed the privacy legislation, said Wednesday that "it's a positive step to put the chief privacy officer in a statute. I'm glad that the administration seems to be open to that approach."
If signed into law by the president, the measure would create what appears to be the first legal requirement that a Cabinet secretary appoint a privacy chief. "To my knowledge, this would be the first position," says Chris Hoofnagle, legislative counsel at the Electronic Privacy Information Center.