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Senate confirms privacy oversight board nominees, but leaves out chairman

Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-VT)

Before it left for its summer recess, the Senate confirmed four nominees to the Privacy and Civil Liberties Oversight Board (PCLOB), but failed to confirm a committee chairman, in a move that could hobble the board’s work.

Congress created the PCLOB in 2004, on the recommendation of the 9/11 Commission, to advise the President and other senior executive branch officials on privacy and civil liberties protections. It became an independent agency in 2007, but hasn’t been able to carry out its duties, say privacy advocates, because Congress hasn’t confirmed all five of its members.

After the four confirmations on Aug. 2, the Board can "do work," but it can’t hire staff until the Senate confirms its chairman, said a statement from a watchdog group, the Electronic Privacy Information Center (EPIC).

Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-VT), chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee hailed the unanimous confirmations of James Dempsey, Elisabeth Collins Cook, Rachel Brand and Patricia Wald to the PCLOLB, but also called for confirmation of board chairman nominee David Medine.

The Senate didn’t act on Medine’s nomination before it recessed. Leahy said all five had testified before the Judiciary Committee in April, and were approved by the committee in May.

According to the White House’s nomination statement in 2011, Medine is a partner in the law firm WilmerHale where his practice focuses on privacy and data security. He had previously served as a senior advisor to the White House National Economic Council from 2000 to 2001 and had been an associate director at the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) in the 1990’s, where, he took the lead on Internet privacy, chaired a federal advisory committee on privacy issues, and was part of the team that negotiated a privacy safe harbor agreement with the European Union. 

“Confirming all of the President’s nominees to this board takes on an added urgency as the Senate debates Cyber security legislation that could impact the privacy rights and civil liberties of all Americans,” he said.

“The PCLOB’s insights are particularly needed as the Congress and the executive branch consider various proposals to enhance the Nation’s Cyber security.  In the digital age, we must do more to protect our Nation from Cyber attacks.  But, we must do so in a way that protects privacy and respects our fundamental freedoms,” he said. 

The Senate ultimately didn’t act on the Cyber bill under discussion before it recessed, however.