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U.S. to appoint privacy adviser

Ohio State University law professor Peter Swire is set to be appointed as the Clinton administration's top technology privacy adviser.

Ohio State University law professor Peter Swire is set to be appointed as the Clinton administration's top privacy adviser, focusing primarily on computerized data collection.

Swire, who has been knee-deep in the debate over how to protect personal privacy rights in the digital age, has written books about the topic and worked with European governments on the issue on behalf of the Commerce Department.

"I will be named the Chief Counselor for Privacy. The position will be in the Office of Management and Budget, within the Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs," Swire said today, limiting his comments until the announcement is made.

Vice president Al Gore promised to appoint a federal privacy liaison last summer as part of his "electronic bill of rights." The government has been faced with increased privacy concerns on many fronts, but especially when it comes to the Net, where personal information is collected often.

Swire will likely stay focused on quelling the conflict between the United States and the European Union over its strict privacy directive that went into effect in October and is set to become law in all 15 E.U. states.

The E.U. law will give citizens new control over their personal data and prevent database-marketing firms, Web sites, credit card companies, medical firms, and others from exchanging personal data with countries that do not provide "adequate" protection of the data.

To prevent U.S. companies' data transfers from being cut off by the E.U., the Clinton administration has proposed safe harbors that would allow firms to continue exchanging data if the companies voluntarily comply with basic principles, such as notifying people of their data-collection practices, letting people "opt out" of giving up their personal information, and stating what other firms will have access to the data.

The "safe harbor" proposal mimics many of the self-regulatory privacy guidelines already in place by many e-commerce Web sites. Still, E.U. officials want tighter enforcement. For example, most E.U. countries have a privacy commission to deal with complaints and noncompliance.

Both sides hoped to hammer out a solution by the end of last year. But a proposal may not be on the table until summer.

"There is a lot of hard work going on particularly on the Department of Commerce side to put some text together for our next meeting in mid-March. We want to wrap this up by the E.U. Summit on June 21," said Gerard de Graaf, first secretary for trade at the European Commission's delegation to the United States.

"The main concern is that [the United States] falls short and on two points where we think it should go further--one is the level of access individuals should have to their data, the other is enforcement, redress, and the complaint mechanisms for those," he added.

Swire's appointment will no doubt be flaunted by the United States as a sign of its commitment to enforce privacy protections.

However, some privacy advocates say although Swire is well-known and respected, his position may not carry the same weight as his counterparts in other nations.

"One of the sticking points with the E.U. is that there is nothing in the United States resembling a data protection commissioner," said Jason Catlett, who is founder of Junkbusters, which offers privacy protection technologies.

"This is certainly a step toward that, but he doesn't have the resources, role, and authority that most countries' data protection commissioners have," he added. "Still, at least there will be a chair with that title on it."