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Protecting Privacy
Views and opinions expressed in this column are solely those of the AFSA State VP.
Issues related to privacy
are of signifcant concern to
many of our members and
to AFSA, as well. While many
Americans worry about the
possibility of identity theft
and other privacy concerns,
Foreign Service members
face the additional threats of
terrorist attack, kidnapping
and fraud or theft. Not only
do we operate in environ-
ments where such crimes are
more common than in the
U.S., but our role as represen-
tatives of the United States
makes us targets for those
who would attack the Ameri-
can government. Privacy, to a
large degree, equals security.
At the same time, our role
as public servants endows
our employer—and the Amer-
ican public—with the right
and responsibility to know
certain things about us. The
need to make determinations
about our qualifcations,
integrity, trustworthiness
and suitability to represent
our country requires that
some very private informa-
tion be shared. Who should
know what, to what degree
and how will that information
be used, stored, shared or
disposed of when no longer
needed is the concern.
Privacy can also be a
double-edged sword, pre-
venting important informa-
tion from being known. A
number of very important
decisions, such as assign-
ment selections, are routinely
made about FS members by
people who have less access
to information than might be
desirable. Without access to
employee evaluation reports
and other data, deciders may
rely on a "corridor reputa-
tion," which may be untrue,
skewed or overly infuenced
by assumptions. Often, a
career event, positive or
negative, becomes legend.
A person who curtailed from
a post for reasons having to
do with, let's say, the health
of a family member, can
be marked by that curtail-
ment for years as a problem
employee, while a person
who did one very visible
good thing in an otherwise
unremarkable career might
still be known as a superstar
years later.
Protecting privacy can be
misused by the department
when it wants to control
information, or make it more
difcult for an employee to
appeal a decision. It allows
the department to con-
trol the ofcial "story" of a
particular event and thereby
discredits the employee's
The inordinate length of
time it takes for the depart-
ment to answer Privacy Act
requests often prevents
employees from being able to
meet the burden of proof in
a grievance, and can prevent
an employee from being able
to present information before
a deadline or other event ren-
ders it meaningless. Protect-
ing privacy can add to the
complexity of other issues of
interest, such as leveling the
playing feld for employees
with disabilities, ensuring fair
treatment of Post Traumatic
Stress Disorder suferers and
even sharing with our mem-
bers why AFSA takes certain
positions on certain issues.
AFSA is currently work-
ing on the following issues
involving privacy:
• The Stop Trading in Con-
gressional Knowledge Act:
The idea behind the STOCK
Act is a good one—that the
fnancial dealings of senior
ofcials, or those who spend
the government's money,
must be transparent and
that such ofcials should not
derive personal gain from
information they learn by vir-
tue of their position. A com-
ponent of the act requires,
however, that information
be posted on the Internet,
where it can be accessed by
any person of any citizen-
ship, anywhere in the world.
That component not only
potentially harms individuals
but, in AFSA's view, carries
a very high risk of damaging
national security as well.
• Ad hoc creation of forms
by department elements
or posts: 2 FAM 1152 and
other regulations govern
creation of forms, while 5
FAM 460 and other regula-
tions concern privacy. These
regulations include clearance
processes which answer
such privacy questions as
whether the information is
truly necessary, how it will
be stored or retrieved, how it
will be shared and how it will
be disposed of. When forms
are created outside these
processes, privacy questions
are often not fully explored,
creating pockets of personal
information that may result
in leaks, improprieties or
other issues.
• Increased use of 360 eval-
uations: 360 evaluations are
a very good and useful tool
for evaluating performance
and serve to counterbalance
incorrect information in a
corridor reputation. However,
they may also provide the
opportunity to add other
incorrect information into
the mix, which the employee
might never see or be able
to address. As the process
comes into greater use, we
have been concerned about
fnding ways to keep the pro-
cess honest and transparent.
• Urging the department to
prioritize Freedom of Infor-
mation Act and Privacy Act
requests from employees,
when the information is rel-
evant to a matter in dispute
between the department
and an employee, or to the
employee's ability to address
allegations against them.
• Ensuring transparency
and responsible action when
personal information is
lost, stolen or diverted. The
department has signifcantly
improved its posture in this
regard, but it is something we
continue to monitor closely.