In federal e-security we trust? Not a chance

When it comes to federal privacy, attorney Eric J. Sinrod points to new research that finds Uncle Sam has a long way to go.

2 min read
Do you trust the federal government when it comes to your privacy and the handling of your personal information? Is your personally identifiable data handled by the government in a way that your privacy might be breached or such that your data is safe? Inquiring minds want to know.

And just in time, a privacy think tank called the Ponemon Institute has issued its 2006 Privacy Trust Study of the United States Government. The report ranks public perception of the privacy protection practices of federal agencies, based on responses to various survey questions. More than 70 agencies were evaluated, and each was assigned a privacy trust score by factoring together positive and negative survey responses.

Given the very different perceptions of how well separate agencies protect personal data, it is obvious governmental privacy protection practices vary.

Let's turn to the bad news first. The least-trusted federal agencies, starting from the bottom, are: the Department of Homeland Security, the Transport Security Administration, the CIA, the Department of Justice, the Office of the Attorney General, the National Security Agency, the Bureau of Citizenship & Immigration, and the Federal Bureau of Prisons.

This is sobering, as these are not minor governmental outposts. We're instead talking about critical agencies, with vital missions, that handle very sensitive data.

The 2006 privacy test score for the Department of Homeland Security is only 17 percent, down 10 percentage points from last year. The current score for the Transport Security Administration is 19 percent, down 11 percentage points from last year. The 2006 score for the CIA right now is 21 percent, down 5 percentage points from 2005. And the beat goes on for these agencies ranking at the bottom of the report.

But yes, there is some good news. For the second year in a row, the U.S. Postal Service finished at the top of the rankings. For 2006, the privacy trust score for the Postal Service is 82 percent, up 4 percentage points from last year. Next came the Federal Trade Commission, with a current score of 78 percent, which is 8 percentage points higher than in 2005.

Other agencies earning high 2006 marks, from the top down, are the Internal Revenue Service (that's a relief), the Bureau of Consumer Protection, the Department of Veteran Affairs, the Census Bureau, the Social Security Administration, the National Institutes of Health, and the Federal Court System.

The public has interactions with the federal government all the time, and given the very different perceptions of how well separate agencies protect personal data, it is obvious governmental privacy protection practices vary. When it comes to privacy protection, there's some public support for the view that certain federal agencies are getting the job done. But they also know that other agencies still have a long way to go.

If the left and right governmental hands ever got together, those agencies still in need of improvement could learn from colleagues who figured out privacy a while ago. One can only hope.