The Department of Homeland Security has released to Congress a report detailing its privacy activities from 2008 through 2009, offering a glimpse into the department's work on a variety of privacy fronts, including the searches of laptops and other electronics devices and the government's gradual embrace of social media.
The 99-page report (PDF available here) reads as a laundry list of DHS privacy initiatives during the past year and a half, containing a helpful appendix of three pages of acronyms.
In the area of border security, the department defended its use of RFID technology in developing enhanced drivers licenses to facilitate border crossings under the Western Hemisphere Travel Initiative.
The U.S. Customs and Border Protection unit has come under fire from civil liberties groups for searching the contents travelers' electronic devices, particularly laptops.
The new report downplays the frequency of this practice. From Oct. 1, 2008 through May 5, 2009, for instance, DHS reported that of the 144.4 million travelers CBP authorities encountered at U.S. ports of entry, just 2.2 percent (or 3.1 million) were subject to a secondary search. Of those, just 1,947 were forced to submit their electronic devices to search.
In some instances, those searches entailed nothing more than turning the device on to ensure that a cell phone is in fact a cell phone, a laptop a laptop, etc. (A handful of federal buildings in Washington, such as the Federal Communications Commission, maintain the same practice. The White House and the Capitol complex buildings do not.)
DHS reported that 696 travelers' laptops were subject to inspection from October through May, and of those, only 40 were put through an in-depth search that would inspect the content on the devices.
On the social media front, the DHS Privacy Office said that it had taken up President Obama's mandate to incorporate new technologies into the government's operations, but noted that it faced challenges addressing the tangle of privacy concerns that come in tow.
"Social networking tools are an effective means by which the federal government can communicate with the public, but the government use of the tools may raise a myriad of complex legal, security and privacy issues," the report said.
To get the ball rolling, DHS held a public workshop in June to serve as a forum for addressing the privacy concerns regarding social media in government.
DHS representatives also participated in a Web 2.0 subcommittee dispatched by the Federal CIO Council and convened several internal workshops to sort through the privacy issues associated with new media tools.
The department has posted a site documented its forays into the Web 2.0 world here.
Additionally, the report talked up DHS' role in working with the administration's team commissioned to review the federal government's cybersecurity apparatus and establish recommendations to balance the security of U.S. digital infrastructure with privacy protections.