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, no 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.

Moyers & Greenwald: Bombings no excuse to curtail privacy

Journalist and constitutional lawyer Glenn Greenwald appeared on Bill Moyers’ TV show today and defended privacy rights in the aftermath of the Boston bombings. Here is the video, followed by some choice quotes.

Moyers:  “How do we thrive as an open society, and become the country that we wanted to become, when we are faced with the knowledge that these attacks can come when and where we don’t expect them?”

Greenwald: “This is the problem. The reality is if you have an open society, you can’t prevent attacks like this. You can build enormous structures of security to prevent people from going on airplanes with bombs or guns, but then what do you do about trains or crowded malls or Times Square? And I think then that really underscores the choice that we have, which is number one, we can do what have been doing, which is become a more closed society, authorize the government to read our e-mails, listen in to our telephone calls, put people in prison without charges, enact laws that make it easier for the government to do those sorts of things, or we can try and understand why it is that people want to come here and do that.”

Moyers:  “Here in New York City this week, a lot of officials including the police commissioner have been praising surveillance cameras that were so helpful in Boston and saying we need more of those, and are asking for them. Are we moving into an era when the government is going to know more and more about each and every one of us?”

Greenwald: “We are close to that already…. The National Security Agency every day collects and stores 1.7 billion e-mails, telephone calls, and other forms of electronic communications by and between American citizens. And what’s amazing is if you look at the case in Boston, the surveillance state, this massive apparatus of monitoring and storing information about us that we’ve constructed over the last decade that is extremely expensive and invasive, really didn’t do much. It didn’t detect the attack before it started. The attempted times Square attack in 2010 wasn’t stopped because of eavesdropping or government surveillance, but because a hot-dog vendor noticed something amiss with the bombs that had been left. So again, the surveillance state doesn’t really do much in terms of giving us lots of security, but what it does do is it destroys the notion of privacy, which is the area in which human creativity and dissent and challenges to orthodoxy all reside. The way things are supposed to work is we’re supposed to know everything that the government does, with rare exceptions (that’s why they’re called the “public sector”) and they’re supposed to know almost nothing about us (which is why we’re “private individuals”) unless there’s evidence that we’ve committed a crime. This has been completely reversed, so that we know almost nothing about what the government does. It operates behind this almost impenetrable wall of secrecy, while they know everything about what it is we’re doing, with whom we’re speaking and communicating, what we’re reading. And this imbalance, this reversal of transparency and secrecy and the way things are supposed to work, has really altered the relationship between the citizenry and the government in very profound ways.”

Moyers: “Is it conceivable to you that giving up our privacy and even much of our liberty becomes a way of life in exchange, a trade, for security?”

Greenwald: “What history shows is that when governments are able to surveill people in the dark, generally the greatest outcome is that they abuse that power and it becomes tyrannical. If you talk to anybody who came from Eastern Europe, they’ll tell you that the reason we left is because societies become deadened and soulless when citizens have no privacy.”

Who do you want looking after your privacy rights?

We’ve been brainstorming the ideal make up of an advisory board to help City Council review protocols for surveillance equipment. Here’s what we’ve come up with so far.

– University of Washington security and privacy research center
– Representative from the police accountability and review board
– Computer hardware developer
– Security software developer
– Sociologist
– Two attorneys with expertise in privacy law
– Near Future Security Researcher
– ACLU technology expert
– Community member with stake in free expression (artist? blogger?)
– Small business owner

Principles for an effective civilian oversight board

Below are some existing principles for civilian oversight. We’ve submitted them along with our proposal to Seattle City Council in hopes that they will help Council craft an oversight body that has real authority to influence policy.

Independence. The power to conduct hearings and report findings and recommendations to the public.

Investigatory Power. The authority to independently investigate incidents and issue findings on complaints.

Hearings. Essential for solving credibility questions and enhancing public confidence in process.

Reflect Community Diversity. Board and staff should be broadly representative of the community it serves.

Policy Recommendations. Civilian oversight can spot problem policies and provide a forum for developing reforms.

Statistical Analysis. Public statistical reports can function as early warning systems and detail trends, helping to identify potentially vulnerable systems.

Proposal for city officials and next steps taking shape

We’ve identified our founding members (see the About page) and begun work on a list of tasks for April. Roughly, here’s our plan:

  1. Identify our recommended positions for the Privacy Oversight Board (specify list of professions and expertise)
  2. Write up proposal to introduce the idea to City Council and the Mayor’s Office
  3. Contact offices of City Councilmembers who might be willing to sponsor legislation
  4. Create forum for public comment on this web site
  5. Develop outreach plan to engage other interested Seattle community members.
  6. Send press release alerting hyperlocal media outlets to the call for a Privacy Oversight Board.