Tussling over victims' privacy

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 domestic violence victims in shelters.

HUD officials, who have emphasized the importance of gathering long-term data on the homeless population, are developing a national database they say will help improve services to all homeless people including battered women.

But some observers criticized department officials' request for including domestic violence shelters in the databases. In a worst-case scenario, privacy advocates say, an abuser who happens to be authorized to access a Homeless Management Information Strategies (HMIS) database could get information about a victim of domestic violence and potentially find and harm that person.

Government officials' response to those concerns appears in a notice published today in the Federal Register. The document provides stricter guidelines on domestic violence shelters.

The amended guidelines distinguish between collected data and data entered on a central server. They do not require officials to report Social Security numbers or addresses, but they are supposed to use either a proxy, coded, encrypted or hashed unique identifier.

Domestic violence shelters may also adopt a delayed data entry protocol, in which client records are not entered into the HMIS system until a set period of time after the clients leave the shelter.

An official at one domestic violence organization is not satisfied with today's notice.

"Even if a community encodes a victim's information, HUD is dictating the coding formula so that her confidential information can be promptly matched up in the central tracking system, clearly violating victim confidentiality," said Cindy Southworth, technology director at the National Network to End Domestic Violence. "HUD continues to not understand our core promise of absolute confidentiality for every victim using life-saving domestic violence services."

She added that delayed data entry does not reflect that it is common for a victim to stay in a shelter and then settle in the same area, trying to keep children in the same school, for example. "We don't want HUD's tracking system to force her to flee again to keep her abuser from knowing her location," Southworth said.

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