USA Today
Copyright 2000

Wednesday, June 7, 2000



Privacy is Peter Swire's domain Behind the scenes, he's president's go-to guy
Elizabeth Weise

WASHINGTON -- Peter Swire's job is looking after your privacy. Which might explain why you've never heard of this mild-mannered law professor at Ohio State University.

His official title: chief counselor for privacy in the Executive Office of the President at the Office of Management and Budget. He is the first person to hold the position.

Just don't call him the nation's privacy czar.

"In the Constitution, it prohibits patents of nobility," Swire, 42, says with a smile. "I wouldn't want to claim I was violating the Constitution."

Nonetheless, Swire's is perhaps the most important national voice on privacy issues. But because his role is an advisory one, it is often only a whisper, not meant to carry further than the exact person who needs to hear it.

"Here's a person who has been given a job on high-profile issues, and yet it requires him to be a masked man," says James Dempsey of the Center for Democracy and Technology, a Washington-based privacy advocacy group.

Still, Swire's fingerprints have been on policies and documents that have made headlines in the past 14 months, from financial deregulation to medical privacy and bankruptcy reform.

And the hot-button issues on which Swire holds sway promise to become ever more crucial as the world moves to translating all its knowledge into digital form and transmitting it over online media.


* The inexorable movement of paper records at the state and local level to the Internet, when "searches of those records can result in the unprecedented side effect of a dossier," Swire says.

As legal records of bankruptcies go online, a problem is emerging. "If we go to an all-Internet system, we'll be putting the bank account numbers of millions of Americans up on the Net, ripe for the plucking," he says.

* The potential for genetic discrimination. "The president issued an executive order in February prohibiting the use of genetic information in (government) hiring," he says. "We've endorsed a proposition to make that illegal in the private sector. Do you really want your boss looking through your genetic file? Do you want the next job interview to include a DNA screen?"

* The ongoing battle between the information-gathering needs of law enforcement and citizens' privacy rights. Consider the Fourth Amendment, which protects our papers and effects in our homes from unreasonable search, he says. "What happens when your papers and effects are being held on the network by another company?"

Swire relishes the challenge. "The issues are so great, the chance to make a difference is exciting, the pace is frenetic. We're working on Internet policy issues at Internet speed."

As an academic, Swire did some of the earliest and most independent research on the impact of privacy issues in the financial world, says Fred Cate, a professor of law at Indiana University in Bloomington who also studies privacy issues. "He was one of the first people to put his stuff up on the Net, which in the field of privacy is critical, because if you wait 18 months to publish, it's too late. He's the model of the interactive scholar."

Swire is a "very, very, very bright person, one of the quickest studies of anyone I've worked with," says Rick Fischer, a partner at the D.C. law firm of Morrison & Foerster who works on e-commerce and privacy issues.

An unassuming man with a gentle voice and patient air, Swire is not what you'd imagine a high-powered government official to be. During an interview, he gamely offers to go out on the roof outside his office to get better light for a photographer. He clambers out an awkward window, then offers a hand to those coming behind him.

At a meeting a week ago, Fischer says, he was surprised, in the image-conscious world of Washington, to see Swire walk in with his laptop in a backpack slung over his shoulder. "He's one of those people who you can underestimate easily," he says. "He's unassuming, one might even say unimpressive -- until he opens his mouth. But as soon as he starts talking, he captures everybody."

So honest and cautious is Swire that when a meeting with privacy advocates goes over into lunch time, he always insists on paying for his own sandwich and soda, even if it's only $3, says Ari Schwartz of the Center for Democracy and Technology.

His low-key nature extends to his offices. He's stationed in the Old Executive Office Building, next door to the White House. In the Kremlinesque world of Washington politics, this is at least a step closer to power from his original office, which was in the New Executive Office Building, across the street.

The extent of his empire is a cramped front office where his new assistant recently sat, looking somewhat overwhelmed.

Behind a wooden door lies Swire's somewhat more spacious office, which includes his desk, a conference table and a bookcase. The shelves are stuffed with legal texts and adorned with pictures of his two sons. There's also the desk of Lauren Steinfeld, a fellow lawyer who holds the title of associate chief counselor for privacy. Add an intern, and you have the entire staff squeezed into the space of a living room.

"When he started, he had nobody," says Indiana University's Cate. "It used to be you'd call and the phone was answered 'So-and-So, So- and-So, So-and-So, and Peter Swire's office.' "

The unassuming nature of Swire's operation might be a key to his success. Because facets of privacy affect all departments, Swire's job involves a delicate balancing act of coordinating and guiding a host of federal agencies, each with its own power structure and agenda, and coming out of the process with coherent, privacy-minded policies.

In the highly politicized atmosphere inside the Beltway, Swire always brings a balanced perspective to the table, says Becky Burr of the Department of Commerce. "Privacy is obviously very important to him, but it's in the context of a whole bunch of important issues," she says.

"You have to think about innovation and the competitiveness of U.S. industry, and you have to think about what makes the information economy tick -- and then you have to balance that with very real concerns about privacy. Peter is good at finding creative ways to accomplish important economic or social goals in a way that's consistent with fair information practices."

Although he unofficially advised the Federal Trade Commission on  cyberspace privacy issues in the mid-'90s, Swire never expected to be asked to serve in an official capacity. In late 1998, Vice President Gore announced that the Office of Management and Budget would have the responsibility to coordinate privacy policy at the federal level.

A few months later, Swire was at a conference where Esther Dyson, longtime Internet maven and current chairwoman of the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers, came up to him.

"She said she was on the lookout for someone who'd be willing to fill this role for the administration," Swire recalls. "I said, 'Gee, tell me more.' "

In March 1999, he took a two-year leave from his tenured position. His wife and two sons followed him to Washington two months later, when the school year ended.

The jump from university classroom to the White House situation room was intimidating at first, but nervousness quickly faded. "The first time you go in, it's surreal," Swire says. By the third time, "you're worried about what you're going to say at the meeting."

Swire's main achievements thus far include financial and medical privacy-rights legislation. "Peter played a key role in formulating the recently introduced Consumer Financial Privacy bill, which was meant to close the gaping privacy loopholes in the banking bill," says Rep. Edward Markey, D-Mass.

December's Financial Modernization Act allowed banks to enter other businesses, such as insurance and securities. Under the act, consumers can choose not to allow their personal information to be shared with parties not affiliated with the bank. But if a bank owns an insurance company or brokerage firm, the customer has no right to keep such information private, Markey says.

The penalty for playing fast and loose with customers' data? A fine of $1 million a day -- and being thrown out of the banking business for life.

Swire, Markey says, fought hard to include privacy rights in the Financial Modernization Act and continues to work to expand them in the proposed bill. "He has a talent for translating the privacy concerns of the public into sound policy," Markey says.

Swire also has worked hard on medical privacy. Rules proposed by President Clinton would require that patients give their consent before medical information about them can be used for anything other than basic medical treatment, payments and health-care operation. "You want your doctor to have a full medical file to make a diagnosis, but you don't want your boss to," Swire says.

Janlori Goldman, who directs the Health Privacy Project at Georgetown University, says Swire "was able to keep all the interests and agency officials talking to each other. He was a gatekeeper. It's an extremely valuable role for someone to be playing inside the administration."

But though praise for Swire is nearly universal, many find fault in the office -- not because of what it does do, but because of what it can't. Almost all Western nations have independent governmental agencies that oversee privacy issues. The United States does not.

"If he were in a position that was nominated, and consented to by  the Senate, if it were an independent agency, he'd have more power. He just does not have that bully pulpit as a presidential assistant," says Ed Mierzwinski, consumer advocate with the Public Interest Research Group in Washington.

Adds Evan Hendricks of Privacy Times, an electronic journal: "Mr. Swire has the responsibility . . . to acknowledge the limitations of his office and recommend that we get what all other countries have -- an independent privacy office. The American people deserve nothing less."

While praising Swire's intelligence and breadth of knowledge, Marc Rotenberg of the Electronic Privacy Information Center, an advocacy group in Washington, dismisses the position itself.

"I think they really needed to have a privacy official to pull out at state dinners because the U.S. was increasingly embarrassed at international meetings" because we didn't have one, he says.

Still, Hendricks says, "Peter is a glimmer of what could be."



The Swire file

* Wife: Anne, director for corporate and foundation giving,
Goodwill International

* Children: Two soccer-playing sons, ages 11 and 9. While they're
allowed to surf the Web, the computer is in the family room of the
house, and they have been trained not to give out their names or any
other identifying information until they have asked their parents.

* Education: Princeton University, Universite Libre de Bruxelles,
Yale Law School

* Author of: None of Your Business: World Data Flows, Electronic
Commerce, and the European Privacy Directive with Robert E. Litan,
1999 (Brookings Institution, $16.95)

 * Hobbies: Basketball, every Sunday. Swire, 5-foot-7, played on a
law school intramural basketball team last year. "I'm short, play
point guard, shoot the three and take special satisfaction any time I
can outrun my students." He's also an avid reader of science fiction.

PHOTO, Color, H. Darr Beiser, USA TODAY; Caption: Peter Swire: The chief counselor for privacy in the Executive Office of the President at the Office of Management and Budget.

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