On the grid
Can a massive database of personal information help the homeless without violating their privacy?
Published: January 13, 2011
Since individual agencies can only see a limited amount of shared data, and since HUD and Congress are only interested in aggregate numbers, the only individuals with unrestricted access to all the data on more than 86,000 people in Central Florida are Remigio, his assistant and a handful of administrators at Bowman Systems. Remigio is nonchalant about the privilege of being one of the few with unfettered access. “There’s not a database in the world that’s not like that,” he says.
But he also is sure to stress his professional values: “People come to us at their lowest point,” he says. “A way to maintain their dignity is to respect their privacy.”
Jackson demonstrates their adherence to this principle by an example in which there’s a temptation to abandon it: “Frequently, we have Mom call from Massachusetts … she knows her adult son is here in Orlando, and she’s lost track of him, she knows he’s homeless, and he’s schizophrenic. [She asks:] ‘Could we please find him and tell him that she’ll buy a ticket for him to come home?’ ... That’s a good reason to go find where a client is. But we still don’t do it.”
HUD privacy standards say that police may access a client’s data if the safety of the public depends on it. Jackson says that her organization has only been asked once for access to an individual record in the database, to which she replied that she’d have to be served with a subpoena. (She won’t say who asked or whether a subpoena was actually served.)
Given the increasing prominence of data leaks, insider theft and cyberattacks in the news, it’s difficult to argue that Internet-based data banks are completely secure, even with principled folks holding the keys. Jim Wright, a UCF sociology professor who utilizes aggregate reports from HMIS for academic research, acknowledges this notion. “Nothing’s airtight,” he says. “I mean, we’ve got 14 year-old kids hacking into the FBI.”
Just as the Weekly’s interest in HMIS takes Jackson and Remigio by surprise, so too does the criticism of it. They’ve heard none of it, they say, and they regard it more as a curiosity or an annoyance than a serious threat. As far as HMIS goes, it seems they’ve got more pressing matters to worry about.
For instance, other than the HOPWA agencies and two other outreach organizations, none of the other agencies in the area are sharing more than the bare minimum with each other. Two of the biggest agencies in the area, the Coalition for the Homeless and the Salvation Army, could benefit from having a more open system, for instance, by being able to instantly see how many beds the other agency has open and then refer clients to the other agency if their own are full. Yet neither group appears close to even entertaining the notion. “We just haven’t looked at sharing it yet,” says Muffet Robinson, director of communications for the Coalition for the Homeless of Central Florida. “It’s working fine for what we’re using it for right now.”
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