I spoke with John Nelson, the Privacy Officer for the Food Safety and Inspections Service at the Department of Agriculture. His efforts are at the forefront of personal privacy development and safeguarding. He aptly describes how privacy issues have far reaching affects, and why protection of personal privacy interests requires a proactive approach. The talk was both educational and enjoyable. Thank you John!
1. What does the job of Privacy Officer at the Department of Agriculture entail? How does personal privacy apply to your profession?
(Speaking on my own behalf) Section 23 of the Privacy Act states that, all agencies must have at least one privacy officer as the person in the agency who knows about privacy. So this, along with other legislation, is the law. At the Department of Agriculture’s Food Safety and Inspections Service (FSIS), the primary function of the Privacy Officer is to fulfill the statutory mandate prescribed by the E-Government Act. A privacy officer will conduct a Privacy Impact Assessment (PIA) on any new technology or systems that handles or collects personal information. A PIA is also required on the commencement of a program pilot test, or on new or updated rule making that affects personal information.
In a relatively small agency like FSIS, the Privacy Officer will usually be responsible for all legal privacy compliance issues. However, some of the general duties of a privacy office include training the employees about privacy matters; not just for the public’s benefit, but also for their own. It is the Privacy Officer who needs to respond to both consumer concerns over the use of personal information, and implement strategies to safeguard personally identifying data.
2. How do you see the role of personal privacy on the internet evolving? How will social media outlets, most notably Facebook, affect personal privacy?
Regardless of increases in technology, people will continue to be warned against disclosing too much personal information anywhere anytime. Self-protection will be stressed even more than it is today, because your identity will be worth more than ever. We see evidence of the importance of identity in events like the new law in Arizona, where who you are, (or are not) has serious implications. Based upon trends in both government and the private sector, the transparency of people and organizations will increase, but that will not necessarily yield more personal integrity, social tolerance, or trust.
Personal privacy, as an industry on the internet, is going to be just as it is today. It will be up to individuals to now the risks, and assess the benefits. Nothing can we do or legislate is going to protect people from being silly and careless. Nevertheless, we will always need to share personal information. I believe the next phases in the evolution of the internet will not only be methods to better protect your credit card and social security number, it will also help prove who we are.
3. How concerned should people be regarding their online personal privacy?
We may soon be living in a world where your identity could be worth more than money. As in the case of the laws in Arizona, where some must prove their citizenship (identity), protecting who you are could become a greater issue. Already there are increases in medical fraud, where people are using other’s identity to get services. With the call for more record sharing in the medical industry, imagine if someone had used your identity and now you are misdiagnosed because of their symptoms on your record. And with the economy lately, we should be making sure our finances are in check and safeguarded against exploitation, or we could suffer significant detrimental outcomes. We often justify giving out our information, or have been remiss in safeguarding it. Unfortunately, In the near future, those who have been lethargic may pay sobering consequences for the lack of concern today.
4. How has GovLoop been beneficial to you?
Govloop has been a means to better communicate with like minded people. It epitomizes what a social network should be used for. More than just a way to share how your day has been or catch up with old friends, Govloop has allowed me to meet and share information with peers I more than likely would not have met. In Mary Davie’s Cycling Enthusiasts group, we have connected with several other riders and formed a virtual team of GovLoop charity riders. I see that growing to really help others in our communities. That alone has made me feel pretty good; seeing other public officials participating in charity events.
In the Federal privacy forum, I’ve had the chance to post and see other posts and opinions regarding safeguarding of information. And, others have contacted me to share best practice ideas. Ideas that I have implemented to help make our agency’s policy and practice better. This social network, communal in concept, is really a very good conference center, allowing me and others to share ideas easily and engage in discussions we would not have the time or budget to be able to accomplish.
5. Does the Department of Agriculture utilize social media? Should they?
In our case, where consumer education and product warnings are paramount to our mission, it isn’t a question about ‘should’; it is a requirement in this technological day and age. We use social media to introduce food safety messages into existing conversations. For example, Facebook and similar sites provide food safety educators platforms where people voluntarily associate. They are 21st century water coolers where information is shared and received.
Finally, we can use social media to rapidly reach Americans affected by outbreaks and other food safety threats. For example, we can send out information the moment a recall is announced or when a coming storm creates a risk of power outage. It clearly beats simply positing something on our Web site and hoping someone sees it.
As you may see, USDA and FSIS rely upon social media to better present ourselves and to promote our mission, but also to make sure the public remains safe.
6. What path did you follow to get into the government?
7. What got you into cycling? What are your cycling aspirations?
I had played tennis since I was four years old. All of those years of twisting and pounding, my knees finally gave out during college and forced me to have surgery. During the rehabilitation process, a physical therapist suggested that I start riding a bike; less wear and tear. So I bought an aluminum-framed Nishiki ten-speed, which was a big deal back then. Even though I had been riding a bike since I was a child, it wasn’t until a moment crossing Paines Prairie just south of the University of Florida that I fell in love with the sport. From there, I got into triathlons and ultra-distance riding.
Nowadays, I get out when I can and ride to work. My aspirations aren’t what they used to be (in my youth). I’m more likely to ride centuries now, and perhaps go out on long mountain bike rides around the area. But still, that same feeling I had on my old Nishiki still exists.
8. What are your favorite DC lunch spots?
The location of the Department of Agriculture, by the Smithsonian Metro station, doesn’t allow for many choices of restaurants. However, the Mandarin Oriental hotel’s Sou’Wester offers a wonderful way to get out of the office. It is ideal for the business lunch; with an open atmosphere and a simple, but unique menu. Typically, you will find me creating a salad in the Department’s cafeteria. Though it might not sound like much, there are healthy choices, a good variety, and I can bring it back to my desk.