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Member of the Week – John Nelson

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.

Having a good privacy program builds trust with our citizens and the employees. It also enhances an agency’s reputation. So my job is also to be an internal privacy adviser, who is familiar with the agency as well as with privacy law and any other legislation governing what the agency can and cannot do with personal information. A privacy officer can prevent problems such as breaches of your safeguarded personal information from arising. This can save expense and time further down the line by ensuring the agency’s business practices comply with privacy requirement, and keeps your information safe while in the hands of the FSIS.

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.

For years, Facebook has based its core relationship with users on protecting their privacy, making sure the information they posted could only be viewed by trusted friends. Privacy control was the vector around which Facebook operated. And now, 350+ million people around the world signed up for that system. Even though Facebook tends to be the face of personal privacy issues, the truth is that it is just the messenger. We 350+ million, as individuals, are the ones responsible for putting the information in place where a search engine can find it. As much as we would like to have a villain in the story, Facebook doesn’t own our information. However, they do have something to say and a stake in helping us protect it.

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?

We are especially proud of our social media outlets here at USDA and FSIS. Recently, an industry article praised our efforts. Food Safety News said, “The USDA definitely wins the social media contest among these food-related agencies. The agency has a broad social media presence–it has four blogs, Facebook, and Flickr pages, podcasts, a long list of RSS feeds, four YouTube channels, and over a dozen Twitter accounts.” Social media and new communications technologies give us new ways to provide health educators and many others tools they can use to increase food safety awareness, and vigilance, among the public. It’s easy to trivialize social media. But for food safety education, it is potentially revolutionary.

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.

We can reach out to groups actively seeking food safety information. For example, people who have signed up for our Tweets have chosen to receive our information. Meaning, we have a direct line to people who have expressed concern about food safety and are motivated to learn more about it. People who find those messages useful share them with each other, multiplying our impact. Social media is immediate and personal, without any mediation, we can send a message that directly reaches a mom in Nebraska, a restaurant manager in Oregon, and a teacher in Mississippi. No other medium allows us to do this.

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?

I took the slow boat is seems. Though I flirted with public service for years, it wasn’t until just last July that I made the leap into the government as a full-time employee. Prior to this I worked with various levels of government, from local to Federal, as a project manager and then as a privacy professional. I started with the Orange County Property Appraiser’s Office in Orlando, Florida, and then joined a small company that developed programming and infrastructure for social service organizations. I later became a project manager with a company that designed software for government infrastructure projects; such as the web portal for www.dc.gov.

My first foray into Federal government was to help the State Department update the Foreign Affairs Manual and Handbook. It was there that I gained a reputation for innovation and forward thinking. It was also then that I acquired a great deal of mentoring from my managers Charles Cunningham and Mike Cheman that helped me cultivate my love for public service. During another contract assignment with the Department of State, helping them re-develop their privacy program, I decided that I can best make a difference by working for the citizens on the inside of government. The decision was difficult to leave private industry, but ultimately I have found a great deal of job satisfaction and personal growth here at FSIS, and in the government sector. Though it took me a while to get here, I appreciate the need for public servants, and almost regret not getting here sooner.

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.

In a pinch, don’t underestimate the hot dog cart just outside the Department’s South Building main entrance. What’s more American than a street vendor hot dog? The short walk up my corridor is sometimes a welcome diversion to the day. It gets me out of the building, and it’s a pretty frugal, yet substantial lunch in the short time we all seem to have these days. But as a favorite, you can’t beat Potbelly’s. There is something about those tiny, messy sub sandwiches that fill you up without making you tired the rest of the day. And you’ll find every walk of life in the place ordering the same thing in the same way. If that’s not lunch in DC, then I don’t know what is.

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John Nelson

One thing you may consider is putting your music out as an Alias and have people wonder about who you are. That way you keep your privacy and have your music out there. The band Gorillaz does that. Great music, and people don’t exactly know who they are, so you concentrate on the music, not the person(s). You should also consider just putting out samples and then bringing “members” or suscribers to another site to download your music. It keeps people interested, both you and they become values members of an exclusive club, and you get to control what goes out to whom. Unfortunately, what happens after you upload is anybody’s guess, so it is hard to balance the public side with privacy and copyrights of music. Good luck with your endeavors. I hope you find the balance you are seeking. But, be careful to reveal only your public persona, not your private information.


Amanda Blount

Good stuff John! I am so happy you are the member of the week! I enjoy “talking” with you on Govloop in the professional sense, and then on facebook on the fun side. It is like we have a real working / friendship relationship. Isn’t it interesting how people adjust online social sites to mirror real interactions? 🙂 Well, I hope I get to meet you and your wife soon. I don’t get to come this way that often, and I want to meet my fellow Member of the week! 🙂