This week, Elevated Risk introduced you to the coolest new superhero around. He’s a masked crusader, just like all the greatest superheroes, and his name is Privacy Man. The Department of Homeland Security created Privacy Man to teach bureaucrats how important it is to responsibly handle sensitive personal information contained in government databases. DHS has lots and lots of databases.
The department graciously gave us one of the posters it created to promote Privacy Man internally, which you can find below. We included it in our piece about local, state and federal government employees repeatedly getting caught conducting unauthorized searches of their neighbors, ex-spouses, girlfriends, family members, politicians and celebrities (to be sure, DHS databases weren’t the only ones searched).
Such breaches raise questions about the security of massive information systems containing often highly personal details about the American public. The government has been on a mad dash since Sept. 11 to create new databases for compiling, analyzing and sharing intelligence, so that would-be terrorists can’t make a move without authorities knowing about it.
After receiving the poster, we started asking some mostly snarky questions around the office. Why does Privacy Man appear to be lurking outside the window of a private office? Shouldn’t he be in a nondescript government building somewhere quietly protecting your privacy instead of showing off and rappelling down the side of a skyscraper? Why are there two Privacy Men? Is this really the best work Michael Chertoff and Tom Ridge can get now (when they’re not moonlighting as consultants)? And “privacy is everywhere”? What exactly does that mean?
As it happens, there are some answers to our essential questions about Privacy Man.
A DHS official contacted us to explain that the poster was inspired by none other than Batman and Robin. He even included a screen grab of the scene used to create the poster (see below for comparison). It also turns out that the building Privacy Man and his trusted sidekick are dangling from is the Transportation Security Administration’s headquarters.
Privacy Man, this DHS official added, was launched following a data breach in 2007. Here’s what the Washington Post wrote that year in an editorial describing problems at the TSA, while also expounding upon breaches across the federal government:
The Transportation Security Administration isn’t terribly secure when it comes to safeguarding personal information. An external computer hard drive with data on 100,000 staffers was reported missing from a secure area at the agency on May 3. Now, two laptops that belonged to a TSA contractor, Integrated Biometric Technology, and that contained details on 3,930 people have disappeared. It’s yet another example of the federal government unwittingly aiding and abetting potential identity thieves. Safeguarding personal information has been the law of the land since passage of the Privacy Act of 1974 and the Federal Information Security Management Act of 2004. But you wouldn’t know it by the many stories about federal agencies accidentally letting Social Security numbers and other private, sensitive information slip away.
Maybe Privacy Man should have been modeled after author J.D. Salinger, legendary for his obsession with privacy (he built a six-foot fence around his remote property in Cornish, N.H., and rarely left). Then again, maybe Salinger was a little extreme, and somewhere between him and Privacy Men swinging down the sides of buildings protecting our privacy “everywhere” we can strike a reasonable balance.
Maybe that’s asking too much in a post-9/11 world.