Municipal Data Oversight: Chief Privacy Officer or Oversight Board — or both?

Today we got some excellent feedback from friends in another privacy-rights organization, which was that our proposed oversight board has a great goal but might be hampered by not having the teeth to insure that policy changes occur based on its feedback. As an alternative, our friend notes that a new position that’s becoming commonplace in the private sector and slowly gaining popularity in the public sector is the Chief Privacy Officer.

Certainly we’ve seen this toothiness problem with other oversight boards — their recommendations are not always followed by policymakers. Usually it’s simply because many good ideas require more revenue than public institutions have, but of course there may also be other forces at work internally.

As one of several members of Seattle Privacy who has worked in the public sector, I (Jan) am personally hung up on the idea of having people who are not dependent on the City for their livelihoods involved in reviewing protocols, policy, and security plans, simply because I’ve seen how over time as a public employee you can become very cautious about what you’re willing to write down. To me this is an ironic example of the chilling and self-censoring effect of surveillance, even though in this case it’s a necessary part of having transparent institutions. But with awareness of public disclosure requests hanging over everyone’s head all the time,┬áno one ever writes down anything controversial or daring for fear that it will show up on the front page of “The Stranger”, and then you’ll be fired.

Which to me just shows that even when the persons doing the watching are the public and the press, it’s creepy and scary and it changes you to feel constantly watched and judged. It’s a burden that public employees willingly accept, for which they are to be appreciated and admired. But I’d hate to see our whole society living like that.

We’re adding the role of Chief Privacy Officer to our list of things to discuss. It might be exactly the right way to go, although, like any new position, it would require scaring up funding in the city budget, never easily accomplished.

Meanwhile, we’ve also met with staff in the office of Council President Sally Clark. It’s extremely heartening to live in a city where public officials are accessible, interested, and forward-looking on technology questions.