Practical Privacy

IAPP Westin Research Center

Six Practical Tips for the Private Sector from the DHS Annual Privacy Report

By Dennis Holmes, IAPP Westin Research Fellow

Successfully managing a privacy program can be challenging, especially when faced with a limited staff, budget or both. For simple, effective ways to help you improve your organization’s privacy program, you may want to pick up a copy of the recently released Department of Homeland Security Privacy Office’s 2013 Annual Report to Congress. The report highlights the achievements of the DHS Privacy Office over the past year with respect to its five strategic goals: privacy and disclosure policy, advocacy, compliance oversight and workforce excellence.

The DHS privacy office is the first statutorily created and, arguably, the premier privacy office in the federal government. Accordingly, much can be learned about managing a privacy program by analyzing the accumulated achievements of the Privacy Office over the last year. While a public-sector report may seem to be low-priority reading for private-sector privacy professionals, you may be surprised to learn that the report contains plenty of relevant and useful information to help you manage your organization’s privacy program.

This article identifies six practical tips from the DHS Privacy Office’s 2013 Annual Report to Congress that could give your privacy program a boost.

Tip 1: Develop an Implementation Plan

To further its Privacy and Disclosure Policy goals, the DHS Privacy Office, among other things, issued Directive 140-06, Privacy Policy for Research Programs and Projects. The directive codifies a detailed set of principles for privacy-sensitive research and requires staff to work with the Privacy Office to develop an implementation plan addressing how the principles will be applied to the research.

Private-sector privacy professionals also understand the importance of developing internal privacy principles and policies, but the development of policies alone is not enough. Those policies and principles must be put into practice. Like the Privacy Office’s Directive 140-06, private-sector privacy professionals should also mandate that the relevant departments and staff work with the privacy team to form an implementation plan. Creating a written implementation plan will help foster a culture of privacy and transparency, as well as a uniform understanding of internal policy.

Tip 2: Maintain an Active Leadership Role

It is crucial to the success of your privacy program that you keep abreast of privacy compliance at the ground-level.
Dennis Holmes

If managing your organization’s privacy program is not your only responsibility or if you have limited staff, it can be tempting to shift your focus after implementing a new privacy program or after a specific privacy initiative is implemented. But it is crucial to the success of your privacy program that you keep abreast of privacy compliance at the ground-level. For example, the Privacy Office participated in reviews of DHS information sharing access agreements (“ISAA”) for FIPPs-based privacy protections to ensure compliance with DHS privacy policies.

Active leadership does not necessarily require formal process reviews or a series of meetings, although such activities may be appropriate depending on the size and nature of your organization. Active leadership could also include building relationships with key stakeholders in the organization. The Privacy Office leveraged such relationships with the DHS Office of Policy, DHS Component data stewards (DHS refers to its various departments and offices as “Components”) and other internal stakeholders to ensure that information sharing programs were executed in a privacy-protective manner.

Tip 3: Establish a Working Group

Over the past year, the Privacy Office participated in a working group addressing DHS responsibilities to protect special protected classes of aliens and contributed to the DHS Records Working Group’s directives on information sharing related to asylum seekers, asylees and refugees.

Regardless of the size of your organization, a working group can be a great tool for addressing larger privacy concerns.
Dennis Holmes

Regardless of the size of your organization, a working group can be a great tool for addressing larger privacy concerns. Establishing a working group that brings in members from outside your privacy team can increase privacy awareness, get more people in your organization actively involved in privacy and promote buy-in.

It is important to set clear goals and deadlines and to choose an appropriate decision-making model for your working group. Without such structure, working groups have a tendency to be inefficient and yield few results. A successful working group, however, can produce best practices guidance and other useful products without relying solely on efforts of the privacy team.

Tip 4: Centralize Your Privacy Oversight System

In February 2012, the Privacy Office created the Privacy Oversight Team, which combines several functions of the Privacy Office’s core responsibility, such as privacy incident response, privacy investigations and privacy complaint handling. The Privacy Office’s oversight role was strengthened by combining these complementary functions.

In the private-sector, oversight of privacy compliance can sometimes be fragmented, especially in larger organizations. This is due in part to the sector-based approach to privacy law in the United States. Usually, when privacy oversight is fragmented, someone in HR provides oversight for HR-related privacy matters, someone in IT provides oversight for computer-related privacy and security matters, and so on. This kind of fragmentation is inefficient and can result in the inconsistent administration of your privacy program.

Effective oversight is critical to sustaining a successful privacy program. Consider creating one team that represents the many stakeholders throughout your organization. This will allow you to streamline and standardize your oversight procedures. Establishing one privacy oversight team may be a stretch for some smaller organizations, but simply standardizing oversight procedures may achieve similar results.

Tip 5: Conduct Workshops on Privacy Topics

It is no secret that providing privacy training to members of your organization is a key component of a successful privacy program, but such training does not always have to be formal.
Dennis Holmes

It is no secret that providing privacy training to members of your organization is a key component of a successful privacy program, but such training does not always have to be formal. Faced with fiscal constraints, the Privacy Office expanded its use of in-house trainings to cut costs and improve efficiency.

Workshops are a simple, low-cost way to supplement privacy. Such workshops could take the form of a brown bag presentation or a discussion forum. Taking topic suggestions from members of your organization can help you identify knowledge gaps and tailor workshops based on interest. Workshops can be used to reinforce prior training or address emerging privacy issues facing your organization. This article may prove helpful as you plan a workshop for your organization.

Tip 6: Take Advantage of Free Resources

Similarly, in an effort to cut costs the Privacy Office encouraged its staff to take advantage of free substantive classroom and online training offered by other DHS components and other government agencies.

Budget is an often-cited challenge for privacy professionals in the private-sector as well. The quality of your privacy program, however, does not have to be limited by your budget. Before spending money on a tool or resource, try to find out what is available for free. There are a number of free resources offered by reputable organizations that you can use to develop and improve your privacy program or make available to your staff. You can find some of those resources here.

Additional free resources can be found on the websites of privacy think tanks, such as the Future of Privacy Forum.

More from Dennis Holmes

About the Author

Dennis Holmes is a recent graduate of The George Washington University Law School. During law school, he focused on information privacy & telecommunications law and worked at the Federal Trade Commission and Google. He also served as Editor-in-Chief of the Federal Communications Law Journal. Dennis is originally from San Antonio, Texas, and he also holds a Bachelors of Arts degree in Sociology from Macalester College. 

See all posts by Dennis Holmes

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