Is data privacy a priority for DHS? Policy compliance looks an afterthought — watchdog report

Is data privacy a priority for DHS? Policy compliance looks an afterthought — watchdog report

A fairly damning report by a federal watchdog agency puts in doubt the lip service given by Department of Homeland Security agencies that the privacy of the governed is a government priority.

DHS’ inspector general office issued a report this week saying that the department “does not yet have effective oversight to ensure consistent execution” of its own internal privacy program.

The department created the program as part of its dedicated privacy office. According to the inspector general’s report, DHS has done too little to make sure citizen privacy is respected to the greatest extent practical as agents act to protect against domestic and foreign threats.

No controls have been created by the privacy office to guarantee that mandated compliance documentation and information sharing agreements be completed much less submitted. Nor have Homeland Security officials bothered to see if required privacy training has been completed, according to the report.

The result, says the inspector general’s office, is that DHS could be missing privacy risks in programs and systems. And the “inappropriate dissemination” of individuals’ personal information could be happening unabated.

Personally-identifiable information (PII) held by DHS includes the second-largest biometrics databases in the world, which contains at least 230 million biometric records, with new biometric records collected for immigration purposes expected to spike from just under 4 million to 6 million a year following a recent policy change.

Without privacy controls, the federal government might find itself alienating the growing number of citizens realizing how valuable their personal data is to them and how devastating it can be when that data is lost, stolen or misused.

Inspector general staff suggested three remedies, all of which they concur with, according to the report.

The department must create autonomous processes that schedule “timely and periodic reviews” of its privacy threshold analyses and privacy impact assessments.

Officials also must develop and deploy ways to guarantee reviews of all planned information sharing access agreements that involve personally identifiable data. And they have to formally communicate to personnel the necessity to perform the reviews.

Last, methods have to be implemented to make sure personnel are completing mandatory privacy training. The percentage of staff not completing annual training has dropped from 19 percent in 2017 to 12 percent in 2019, but that still means that more than one in 10 employees assigned to take training are not complying.

The Transportation Security Administration had the best record of compliance in 2019 — just four percent had not completed privacy awareness training. But fully 51 percent of staff working at DHS’ headquarters had not undergone training that year.

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