Former DHS Chief Privacy Officer Recounts How She Was Regularly Called A ‘Terrorist’ By The Intelligence Community

Tech Dirt – by Mike Masnick

Mary Ellen Callahan was the Chief Privacy Officer (and the Chief Freedom of Information Act Officer) at the Department of Homeland Security from 2009 until 2012 (though, don’t tell DHS, since they still have a page on their website about her claiming she still has that role — even though she left over a year ago). You have to imagine that being the Chief Privacy Officer within DHS (or any part of the federal government, really) is a pretty thankless job, and it appears that was absolutely the case when Callahan was there. Last night, she was given an award by the IAPP, the International Association of Privacy Professionals — and used it as an opportunity to reveal the work environment in her old job. From the sound of those in attendance, she gave quite a speech, unloading on the lack of respect for privacy in both the Department of Homeland Security and the wider intelligence community.   

She apparently claimed that the number of privacy officers at the NSA was zero — including the Chief Privacy Officer of the NSA. In other words, the position within the NSA is a joke, and that person has no interest, at all, in protecting Americans’ privacy. But, apparently, she was just warming up, because (according to other attendees), she claimed that her office was accused of being “terrorists” once a month both by others at DHS as well as in the wider intelligence community. Furthermore, she was told that they would make her testify after the next terrorist attack, claiming it would be her fault, for daring to protect Americans’ privacy. To her credit, Callahan apparently told those pressuring her that she would “happily” testify in support of her efforts to protect the privacy of Americans.

While this won’t surprise the more cynical among you, it’s an incredibly damning statement about how our intelligence community and the Department of Homeland Security view privacy, and piddly little things like the 4th Amendment. It also shows how merely hiring a “chief privacy officer” doesn’t mean that an agency actually is concerned about privacy or that it makes sure to protect the privacy of the American public. It’s quite common that defenders of DHS, DOJ and NSA overreach will point to things like “privacy officers” as if that means they take privacy seriously. However, it’s often somewhat like a privacy policy — something you can point to, but which no one pays attention to. And, there had always been assumptions that anyone who took that role seriously would get pressure, but it sounds like the pressure was even greater and more ridiculous than most people expected. Hopefully Callahan will speak out further on the kind of pressure she was put under while in that job.

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