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Homeland Security privacy chief leaves for GE

Nuala O'Connor Kelly, praised for her welcoming attitude and investigatory inclinations, plans to take a job with General Electric.

The U.S. Department of Homeland Security's first privacy chief stepped down on Friday amid praise from civil-liberties groups--and regret that Congress didn't prescribe more power to her position.

, appointed by then-Secretary Tom Ridge in April 2003, plans to start as General Electric's Washington-based chief privacy leader and senior counsel in early to mid-October.

Nuala O'Connor Kelly

"When you look at Ms. O'Connor Kelly, she has a wealth of experience both in the private and public sectors, and that's what appealed to us," said Russell Wilkerson, a GE spokesman.

O'Connor Kelly, 37, served as chief privacy officer for the U.S. Department of Commerce before coming to the Department of Homeland Security. Before that, she worked for DoubleClick, the online media services company, where she helped to craft the company's privacy protection policies.

O'Connor Kelly's acting replacement will be Maureen Cooney, who is currently the Privacy Office's chief of staff and senior adviser for international privacy policy, the department said Friday.

Congress in 2002 created the Privacy Office to be a watchdog over the impact of new technologies and government programs on privacy. O'Connor Kelly's appointment came at a time when the Bush administration was fielding criticism about its data-mining ventures, including Total Information Awareness and CAPPS II, an airline screening program.

Maureen Cooney

The controversy didn't stop entirely with the Privacy Office's creation. A successor to CAPSS II, called Secure Flight, took heat this summer for privacy violations. The Government Accountability Office also found that the Transportation Security Administration had failed to do its part in complying with the laws when gathering personal information on airline passengers for use in a test database intended for comparison against terrorist watch lists.

The outgoing officer drew praise from the American Civil Liberties Union for "keeping the door open at Homeland Security for privacy groups."

"O'Connor Kelly has done a commendable job as Homeland Security's first chief privacy officer, considering the limited independence of the job, as it was created by Congress," Barry Steinhardt, director of the ACLU's Technology and Liberty Program, said in a statement.

That limited independence has caused head scratching since the privacy chief's appointment. The position was created to report to the Homeland Security secretary, not Congress. That meant that certain items, such as the chief's privacy reports about agency activities, first had to be cleared by the department's top official.

O'Connor Kelly also found herself with limited investigatory powers, sometimes denied access to certain internal documents needed to explore privacy complaints.

Now is the time for Congress to give the privacy chief post more teeth, ACLU legislative counsel Tim Sparapani said, pointing to a pending measure introduced in June by Rep. Bennie Thompson, a Mississippi Democrat.

"We understand that a truly vigorous and independent privacy officer can be inconvenient for government officials over the short term," Sparapani said in a statement. "But over the long run, vigorous checks and balances will strengthen the Department of Homeland Security by inspiring greater public confidence in DHS programs."

CNET's Declan McCullagh contributed to this report.