Social services hit privacy snag

Federal Register final notice on Homeless Management Information Systems

Department of Housing and Urban Development officials have amended standards for collecting data about the nation's homeless population after social activists and privacy advocates complained that the information could be used to create a national system for tracking homeless people.

HUD officials are developing a national database they say will help improve services to all homeless people including those with mental illness. But advocates for the homeless fear that the information will be used to deny access to services to those who appear in the database as having been denied services at other shelters.

Critics also say that collecting extensive histories from homeless people is an intrusion into their lives.

Government officials' response to those concerns appears in a final notice published July 30 in the Federal Register, which defines stronger data security standards. The amended standards require local authorities to enforce privacy policies for congressionally mandated data-collection efforts.

Last year, HUD officials provided $23 million for 142 local data-collection projects. HUD officials use the name Homeless Management Information Systems (HMIS) to describe local and national efforts to collect and analyze information about homeless people.

Social welfare experts say that collecting information about homelessness will result in better local planning and help reduce the problem. "Without information, we are driving in the dark," said Dennis Culhane, a professor of social welfare policy at the University of Pennsylvania, whose research has involved HMIS. "Localities need good information to make good public policy."

HUD officials have tried to dispel privacy fears by insisting that they are interested only in aggregate data at the national level. They also have said they have no intention of setting up a national database to track homeless people. Law enforcement officials must submit written requests to get information from HMIS databases.

Although privacy advocates said the latest changes are welcome, they remain critical of HUD officials' request for social service agencies to collect Social Security numbers from homeless people and for including domestic violence shelters in the databases.

"The inclusion of domestic violence shelters is problematic and so is the inclusion of the Social Security number," said Chris Hoofnagle, associate director of the Electronic Privacy Information Center, a civil liberties and privacy advocacy group.

In a worst-case scenario, privacy advocates say, an abuser who happens to be authorized to access an HMIS database could get information about a victim of domestic violence and track down and potentially harm that person.

HUD officials emphasize the importance of acquiring longitudinal data on the homeless population.

"If you were to ask for a reliable national, daily or annual count of the homeless, we could not authoritatively answer that question," said Brian Sullivan, a HUD spokesman. Social Security numbers, he said, are useful for getting an accurate count of homeless people and helping them access resources.

Many communities already use information technology to collect data on homeless populations. Last year, 33 percent of about 400 localities that HUD officials surveyed reported they were gathering information on homeless people in their communities, while 61 percent said they were selecting software and hardware for a database. Another 5 percent said they were considering setting up a database. Only 1 percent had not considered doing so.

Homeless people's fear of providing information to authorities, however, remains high. Last year, according to Street Sheet, a San Francisco newspaper that reports on homelessness, 73 percent of 201 shelter users said they were opposed to a system designed by MetSYS Inc., which makes social services program management software that city officials use. Thirty percent said they would opt not to go to a shelter, risking citation and arrest, rather than submit to the city's biometric finger imaging.

Sternstein is a freelance writer in Potomac, Md.


Why HUD wants data on the homeless"

Despite the fears of advocates for homeless people and the homeless people themselves, officials at the Department of Housing and

Urban Development say that a combination of local databases and aggregated data in a national database is needed to:

Bring the benefits of information technology to providers of services to homeless people.

Coordinate the efforts of local agencies that serve homeless people.

Collect and report aggregate information about the characteristics and needs of homeless people nationwide.

Source: Federal Register

The 2015 Federal 100

Meet 100 women and men who are doing great things in federal IT.


  • Shutterstock image (by venimo): e-learning concept image, digital content and online webinar icons.

    Can MOOCs make the grade for federal training?

    Massive open online courses can offer specialized IT instruction on a flexible schedule and on the cheap. That may not always mesh with government's preference for structure and certification, however.

  • Shutterstock image (by edel): graduation cap and diploma.

    Cybersecurity: 6 schools with the right stuff

    The federal government craves more cybersecurity professionals. These six schools are helping meet that demand.

  • Rick Holgate

    Holgate to depart ATF

    Former ACT president will take a job with Gartner, follow his spouse to Vienna, Austria.

  • Are VA techies slacking off on Yammer?

    A new IG report cites security and productivity concerns associated with employees' use of the popular online collaboration tool.

  • Shutterstock image: digital fingerprint, cyber crime.

    Exclusive: The OPM breach details you haven't seen

    An official timeline of the Office of Personnel Management breach obtained by FCW pinpoints the hackers’ calibrated extraction of data, and the government's step-by-step response.

  • Stephen Warren

    Deputy CIO Warren exits VA

    The onetime acting CIO at Veterans Affairs will be taking over CIO duties at the Office of the Comptroller of the Currency.

  • Shutterstock image: monitoring factors of healthcare.

    DOD awards massive health records contract

    Leidos, Accenture and Cerner pull off an unexpected win of the multi-billion-dollar Defense Healthcare Management System Modernization contract, beating out the presumptive health-records leader.

  • Sweating the OPM data breach -- Illustration by Dragutin Cvijanovic

    Sweating the stolen data

    Millions of background-check records were compromised, OPM now says. Here's the jaw-dropping range of personal data that was exposed.

  • FCW magazine

    Let's talk about Alliant 2

    The General Services Administration is going to great lengths to gather feedback on its IT services GWAC. Will it make for a better acquisition vehicle?

Reader comments

Please post your comments here. Comments are moderated, so they may not appear immediately after submitting. We will not post comments that we consider abusive or off-topic.

Please type the letters/numbers you see above