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The U.S. Postal Service has for the third year in a row ranked as the federal government entity that inspires the highest level of trust in U.S. residents, according to a Ponemon Institute survey released Wednesday. All of that slogging through snow and pounding the pavement under wilting heat has paid off. Conversely, the Veteran's Affairs Department's problems protecting the data entrusted to it by the nation's veterans caused the VA's privacy trust score to drop like a stone. This wasn't enough for the VA to take the lowest rank in the survey. That distinction was reserved for the National Security Agency, whose trust scores were marred by its surveillance activities.
Ponemon Institute's new "2007 Privacy Trust Study of the United States Government" represents the perception of more than 7,000 U.S. residents on the federal government's ability and willingness to keep private and confidential the information entrusted to them. Of course, the country can't function without some level of trust in the federal government, whose organizations routinely use the public's personal information to make sure the mail is delivered, taxes are collected, and Social Security benefits are distributed. It's the government's propensity for high-profile data breaches, misplaced sensitive personal information, and surveillance of phone calls and e-mails that keeps most people ill at ease with different agencies' handling of citizen information.
"Trust in the federal government is on the decline," the Ponemon study notes. Since Ponemon published its first "Privacy Trust Study of the U.S. Government" in January 2005, with the help of Carnegie Mellon University, trust has declined steadily from a high of 52% in 2005 to a low of 45% in the 2007 study. This year's score "suggests that U.S. residents do not believe the federal government is committed to protecting privacy," the report states. Ponemon's "privacy trust score" is calculated taking the total number of respondents indicating "yes" they are confident that a given government organization is committed to protecting the privacy of their personal information and dividing that number by the number of study participants.
Participants in the Ponemon study indicated that the most important factor for judging a governmental organization's commitment to privacy is the participant's sense that any data they submit to the organization will be kept confidential and that there are data security protections in place to protect this information. This was likewise the most important factor in the 2006 Ponemon study. Other important factors that affect trust in a government agency are the ability of residents to contact someone within that agency when necessary and the limits that agency places over the collection of personal information.
Surprisingly, several federal government organizations managed to increase their privacy trust scores over the past year. This includes not just the Bureau of Consumer Protection, which increased its privacy trust score by 7% (from 72% to 79%) but also the Transportation Security Administration, which increased by 6% (19% to 25%) and the Department of Homeland Security, whose score increased by 5% (17% to 22%). Homeland Security in December faced criticism from the General Accountability Office for counting too much on biometric technology as the foundation of the U.S. Visitor and Immigrant Status Indicator Technology program passed after the Sept. 11 attacks. It will be at least five years before biometric technology is advanced enough for an infrastructure that can verify identities of people leaving the country via roadways without undue delays. Delays such as this likely contributed to helping Homeland Security seem less invasive of personal privacy.
Plagued by poorly defined and enforced security standards during the past year, Veteran's Affairs' privacy trust score decreased by more than 41%, moving it out of Ponemon's "most trusted list" for the first time since the inception of this survey series.