American Bar Association Releases Privacy Tools for Victims of Domestic Violence
Wednesday, October 22, 2008 11:25 AM

In August 2008, the American Bar Association (ABA) released an online set of privacy tools aimed at helping victims of domestic violence maintain privacy and safety. The website notes that victims of domestic violence are often more vulnerable to violations of privacy than the general population because abusers single out victims and take advantage of the general lack of privacy in U.S. society. Abusers often use techniques such as surveillance, monitoring and stalking, all of which involve breaching privacy.

One tool includes the Homeless Management Information Systems (HMIS) software used by homeless shelters to record, store and track information about services. Since 2004, entities formed by the Department of Housing and Urban Development must implement HMIS in order to determine national homelessness needs and trends. The HMIS includes important privacy provisions.

A second means of violating privacy involves identity theft. A 2003 Federal Trade Commission report found that 9 million victims of identity theft lost USD $47 billion in damages to businesses and USD $5 billion in damages to individuals. Identity theft particularly affects victims of domestic violence. For example, in 2004, 15 percent of identity theft victims also reported being victims of domestic abuse. Identity theft can be used as a form of economic abuse, surveillance and stalking, and can be exploited to cancel victims’ accounts. The identity theft tool suggests women make a safety plan with their domestic violence advocate, which could include obtaining credit reports, monitoring credit, and placing fraud alerts on their accounts.

A third warning by the ABA concerns personal surveillance technologies. Because technologies such as spyware, GPS tracking including through mobile phones, “keylogging,” computer screen shots, and video monitoring are available to individual consumers, people can use them for illegal purposes such as tracking a person’s location, monitoring all types of communication, and even monitoring movement within a home. Use of these methods can skew power dynamics in abusive relationships and impair victims’ safety.

Another section of the ABA site relates to the federal REAL ID Act which creates security, authorization and issuance procedures for state driver’s licenses. This Act may effect domestic violence victims in tangible ways. First, the creation of a national database of driver’s license holders’ personal information could be exploited. Secondly, the Act requires a person to give a physical residence, which may hinder confidentiality, and therefore, the safety of victims.

Finally, the ABA website relates information about the Violence Against Women Act of 1994 and privacy.  The original Act and its 2005 reauthorization include several important privacy provisions, including confidentially of addresses, confidentially of communication between victims and counselors, limitations on online publication of protection orders, and even updated criminal stalking and surveillance laws.

Compiled from: Domestic Violence and Privacy, Electronic Privacy Information Center (29 August 2008).