updated 2/25/2005 2:13:37 PM ET 2005-02-25T19:13:37

Privacy advocates say a committee set up recently to advise the Homeland Security Department on privacy issues amounts to little more than a fox guarding a chicken coop.

One member works for a high-tech company that distributed software that many computer users complained contained adware.

Another works for a conglomerate whose subsidiary turned over personal records of airline passengers to a government contractor.

A third works for a defense contractor from which thieves stole personal information on thousands of employees, making them vulnerable to identity theft.

'Just plane weird'
Bruce Schneier, chief technology officer of Counterpane Internet Security, a Mountain View, Calif., computer security company, and author of “Beyond Fear,” said he looked at the 20-member list and laughed.

“It’s just plain weird,” Schneier said Thursday. “Where are all the privacy people?”

Homeland Security Chief Privacy Officer Nuala O’Connor Kelly said the committee represents a cross-section of viewpoints, including people who have criticized the department.

“We picked the best board from the people who applied,” said Kelly, adding that more than 130 people applied for the committee that she announced Wednesday.

Privacy is a sensitive issue for the Homeland Security Department as it embarks on ambitious plans to look into the backgrounds of everyone who boards a plane, enters the country or works in the transportation industry.

The department has already had to retool a project to conduct instant background checks on airline passengers because of public fears about government snooping.

It has also been reproached for doing too little probing into people’s pasts. Congress criticized the department in 2003 for failing to conduct background checks on all airport screeners before they were hired. The checks were done by the FBI and ChoicePoint, which recently was duped into selling criminals access to its database of consumers’ personal information. A congressional committee will investigate whether such companies require more regulation.

Heavy corporate presence
Privacy advocates say Homeland Security’s privacy board is skewed too heavily toward corporations, including Intel Corp., Computer Associates, IBM Corp. and Oracle Corp.

Some have had their own problems with information privacy and security. They include:

—Samuel Wright, senior vice president of Cendant Corp. Cendant owns Galileo, a computer reservation system that turned passenger records over to a government contractor without their permission or knowledge, according to testimony last year by Transportation Security Administration chief David Stone.

—Joseph Leo, vice president of Science Applications International Corp. Thieves stole computers containing personal information on tens of thousands of employees of SAIC, a defense contractor involved in some of the U.S. government’s most sensitive work.

—D. Reed Freeman, chief privacy officer for Claria Corp. In February 2003, Claria, then known as Gator, settled a suit brought by The New York Times, The Washington Post and other media companies for installing unauthorized pop-up ads on their Web sites. Terms of the settlement were not disclosed.

Freeman, who worked in privacy enforcement at the Federal Trade Commission, went to Claria after the company got into trouble for its practices, Kelly said.

“All three are trying to work through the hard issues that industry is trying to work through on data,” Kelly said. “I of all people am not going to rule out people who have gone to companies that have had challenges and tried to fix them.”

Privacy advocates 'underrepresented'
But privacy advocates say the list doesn’t include what they call the “usual suspects” from their own ranks.

“The strong privacy advocacy community seems underrepresented on this list,” said Daniel Solove, a George Washington University Law School professor and author of a book on privacy.

Said Bill Scannell, who manages the privacy Web site UnSecureFlight.com, “The chickens have quite a number of foxes in there.”

Kelly, though, pointed to several privacy advocates on the board: Tara Lemmey, former executive director of the Electronic Frontier Foundation, a privacy rights group; Lance Hoffman, a George Washington University professor; and James Harper, editor of Privacilla.org and a self-described critic of government surveillance.

The committee will meet four times a year and set its own agenda, Kelly said.

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