The data mine

Protecting the privacy of battered women

In 2001, at the behest of national advocates for the homeless, Congress directed the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development to devise a more precise way of counting America's homeless population. This year, the mandate has come home to roost in Homeless Management Information Systems, a program that requires HUD-funded homeless service organizations to collect and, for the first time, share personal information about their clients, including Social Security numbers and birthdates.

Advocacy groups such as the National Network to End Domestic Violence and the Women's Rights Project say domestic violence shelters should be exempt from the new rules because collecting personal information about abused women on a central computer could leave victims easily compromised by computer-hacking batterers.

In response to pressure, HUD has amended the program's guidelines, clarifying that it will not require domestic violence shelters to share any identifying information on battered women with federal or local governments.

"They would never report client-specific information to the federal government because we only want the big numbers" said HUD spokesman Brian Sullivan. "How many people are homeless? Are they men, women, addicted, living with a disability or mental illness? Are they victims of domestic violence?"

The new HUD guidelines require domestic violence programs to attach a "coded unique identifier," to each client's record, which must be submitted with the data sent to the feds to prevent duplication. Shelters can use any method to create the coded identifiers, but each must include a portion of a client's name, birthday, and gender.

"It's important for women to realize that they can always refuse to give up that information ... "

— Marta Palaez
Some opponents say that will still reveal too much information, but local advocates are cautiously cooperating with HUD. "At the beginning, we were extremely concerned," says Marta Palaez, president and CEO of Family Violence Prevention Service, the organization that runs Bexar County's only battered women's shelter. "But, if what we hear is reality, confidentiality will be protected. We will monitor that very closely."

If successful, the Homeless Management Information System will give public policy makers a first look at the true extent and nature of homelessness in America. In the past, statistics have been gathered in head counts administered in a single day and averaged over the year - an inexact system that counts some twice and others not at all.

"This will finally answer some pretty important questions about homelessness," says Sullivan. "Right now, it's a bit of a guessing game and real public policy flows from knowing."

It sounds promising, even positive; yet, this data mining raises legitimate fears: Who will have access to the information? How will non-profit groups afford the kind of cyber protection to prevent computer-savvy batterers from accessing the information?

Sullivan says shelters may apply their HUD funding to their information systems - although that could siphon money away from services. He contends it would be "tremendously difficult" for even the most competent hacker to break into the systems, which are required to have a minimum of eight layers of security, a protocol he compares to that of the Pentagon. But, if interlopers should do the impossible, "the information they'd find would not be useful to them," he says.

Sullivan stresses that neither the feds nor the local government will see any data until the shelters forward it, and that law enforcement agencies won't be able to access the HMIS, as some advocates fear, without a court-ordered subpoena.

Another exception in HUD guidelines allows domestic violence shelters to indefinitely delay forwarding information until after the client has left the system - a workaround that seems to undermine the rules, but provides some comfort to those unconvinced of the system's ability to protect victims.

Until now, women's shelters haven't requested identifiers except as a means of providing greater protection to victims. For example, law enforcement requires a person to list a previous address in order to issue a protective order. Palaez believes the new rules could discourage women from seeking services. "They should not be afraid: We will not share personal information with any other entity," she says. "But, it's important for women to realize that they can always refuse to give up that information and they will still be eligible for services."

The Family Violence Prevention Center also provides battered women and children with free medical care, legal counsel, substance abuse treatment, and educational programs. Last year, the 120-bed shelter served 2,300 women and children. Palaez says its HUD funding, which comprises 15 percent of the organization's budget, won't be threatened if battered women refuse to divulge their personal information and the shelter continues to serve them. Palaez expects to see a pilot program for San Antonio's HMIS in February. She speaks diplomatically of the new system's potential to focus funding and programs, and the dialogue it might create between San Antonio's social service groups. "Like everything that is new, I'm sure there will be some adjusting and accommodating; that may be the biggest challenge," She says. "But I do understand that the reasons behind it are all beneficial."

By Susan Pagani

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