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EngenderHealth Expresses Deep Concern over U.S. Proposal to Gather Private Information

August 24, 2007 — In a new twist on “anti-terror” intelligence gathering, the U.S. government may soon gather detailed personal information from staff at EngenderHealth and other international nonprofit organizations.  The U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) plans to use a new “Partner Vetting System” to compare private background information against intelligence databases and, without further explanation, deny funding to agencies that might be “associated with terrorism.” 

As described in the July 17 issue of the Federal Register, the proposed PVS is a mechanism through which USAID intends to collect and maintain personal information related to individuals who seek USAID assistance and acquisition awards, and the officers and individuals who work for agencies that do so, for the purposes of ensuring that no USAID monies are used to support individuals, groups, or organizations associated with terrorism. The required information includes name, date and place of birth, government-issued identification information (including social security and passport number), mailing addresses, telephone and fax numbers, email addresses, country of origin and/or nationality, citizenship, gender and profession.  The records maintained by the PVS will be accessible by “authorized government personnel and authorized contractors who have a need for the records in the performance of their official duties.”

EngenderHealth is opposed to the proposed PVS for the following reasons:

The PVS violates civil rights protected by the Privacy Act.  The Act was passed specifically to prevent law enforcement agencies from keeping databases and files on innocent people not suspected of a crime.  USAID clearly recognizes this, and therefore has separately proposed exempting the PVS from the Privacy Act.  EngenderHealth’s American staff and Board members will most certainly object to be included in a database that is apparently going to be shared with U.S government security and intelligence agencies “and authorized contractors.”  Furthermore, according to the notice published in the Federal Register, USAID will not “confirm or deny that an individual ‘passed’ or ‘failed’ screening.” In addition, the announcement does not make clear how a determination of “associated with terrorism” will be made based on information in the PVS.  This would expose individuals and NGOs to loss of employment and USAID contracts without due process.

The PVS will put the lives of American citizens and foreign nationals working for EngenderHealth at greater risk. Collecting this information from our staff, and possibly from local partner organizations that we subcontract with, may cause our staff to be perceived to be representatives of the U.S. government or U.S. law enforcement or intelligence gathering agencies, and this could make our staff targets by terrorist groups.

EngenderHealth protects the privacy of its staff and Board members and does not share personal information except when required by judicial subpoena. Providing the detailed information outlined in the Federal Register violates our policies and practices.  In addition, providing information on foreign nationals in the countries where EngenderHealth works may violate privacy laws and personal data directives and laws of these countries, and would place us in an untenable position of being forced to ignore host country laws.

The collection of the information required for the PVS would be administratively burdensome and time consuming, and drain attention and valuable resources from pursuing EngenderHealth’s work to improve the lives of people living in the poorest communities of the world.

USAID has not provided, and to the best of our knowledge there does not exist, a statutory basis for the PVS. We do not know of any congressional authorization for such measures across the globe.  An intrusive, burdensome mechanism should such as the PVS should not be established without express Congressional directives or authorization.

Finally, EngenderHealth is very concerned that USAID has unilaterally initiated a questionable, counterproductive, and burdensome system without proactive consultation with the NGO community. USAID has given repeated assurances, most recently by the Administrator-designate Henrietta Fore in her June 12th testimony to the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, to consult with the USAID partner community on matters of importance. Other than posting in the Federal Register, there has been no proactive effort to inform, reach out, and solicit input from the NGO community. The manner in which this has been managed is disrespectful of USAID partners and is provocative.

For all these reasons, EngenderHealth strongly opposes the PVS.  We have sent a formal letter of complaint to Philip M. Heneghan, USAID’s chief privacy officer, urging USAID to withdraw the PVS proposal.

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