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Advocates push Bush to name privacy chief

In the latest cry for better privacy protections, a group of consumer advocates and academics call on the Bush administration to elect a new chief privacy counselor.

In the latest cry for better privacy protections, a group of consumer advocates and academics called on the Bush administration Monday to elect a new chief privacy counselor.

The cadre of privacy supporters sent a letter to the director of the Office of Management and Budget, Mitch Daniels, stating concerns that without a full-time privacy chief, progress from the previous year could be stilted.

"We are concerned that without these central staff resources dedicated solely to privacy, we will return to a time when privacy was an afterthought in government...and OMB staff knew little about the larger privacy issues affecting the country," according to the letter.

White House spokesman Jimmy Orr said that President George W. Bush has "a special interest in privacy," as evidenced last week in the passing of medical privacy rules. Those regulations will limit the disclosure and distribution of patient records.

"Although a formal structure has not been announced, certainly this will be a top priority," Orr said. "The individual or individuals who will deal with privacy issues will work under the leadership of the director of the OMB."

Gartner analysts William Malik and Arabella Hallawell say a federal CPO would help develop and implement sensible policies regarding appropriate levels of protection for personal information.

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Although privacy has been a top issue among lawmakers this year, the prospects for enacting legislation took a hit last week when House Majority Leader Dick Armey, R-Texas, sent a letter to colleagues saying any privacy legislation may be premature at this stage. Momentum for a privacy bill also seems to have slowed partly because of the overabundance of bills introduced this year.

Prompting the letter was word in Washington that the Bush administration would not hire a full-time staff dedicated to privacy, a departure from Clinton's years in the White House, privacy advocates say. They've worried that the White House plans to approach privacy by putting each sector of government on the line, rather than appointing one or several staff members to deal with the issues.

"That gives a segmented view of privacy issues rather than an overarching view for the president to make real decisions," said Ari Schwartz, a senior policy analyst at the Center for Democracy and Technology, one of the cosigners of the letter. "Despite all that we have heard about the importance of privacy recently in both the public and private sectors from Congress and in the polls, we are still waiting for the administration to appoint leadership on the issue."

Of utmost concern to advocates is that a potential privacy chief ensure the government is abiding by its own privacy rules, including the Privacy Act of 1974, which governs the way government agencies exchange information. "Right now there's a question to who's overseeing that," Schwartz said.

Scrambling for Privacy Under the Clinton administration, a group of three full-time staff within the OMB oversaw privacy issues.

Supporters of the letter included consumer advocacy groups such as Consumer Action, the Free Congress Foundation and the Privacy Foundation. Academics included Rod Dixon, a professor at Rutgers University Law School; and Deirdre Mulligan from Boalt Law School at the University of California at Berkeley.