Address Confidentiality Programs Fall Short in Protecting Victims Privacy
Alexis A. Moore
November 2, 2011
Thirty two U.S. states, including California, offer address confidentiality programs for the ostensible purpose of protecting victims of crimes such as domestic abuse and stalking. Victims count on these programs to protect them from their abusers, but privacy protection in the Internet age has become much more difficult. Technology now enables abusers to penetrate or work around confidential address and other programs—and many abusers do so. Believing that these programs are ironclad, victims are often caught off-guard when their privacy is breached. The reality is that the protection they provide is limited, and participation in them can give victims a false sense of security.
The good news is that legislators, advocacy groups, and prosecutors are beginning to wake up to the need for stricter measures to protect the privacy of crime victims. Nonetheless, because privacy protection can be a matter of life and death, it is critical for victims themselves, and their families, to fully understand confidential address programs and their limitations. To a degree, confidential address programs can help prevent perpetrators from locating victims’ home addresses.
For example, these programs seal Department of Motor Vehicle records so that only the victim’s private mail box—not her home address—is on file. On the other hand, these programs have severe limitations that can unintentionally undermine victims’ efforts to keep their confidential information private. For example:
•· Although they are designed to protect victims from their abusers, confidential address programs can go far afield from this objective. Rather than simply preventing the perpetrator’s mail from reaching victims, these programs prevent the delivery of packages, certified mailings, and certified letters from anyone. These items are returned to the sender. To keep acceptable mail from being returned, victims must obtain yet another private mailbox through a UPS Store or similar mail-receiving station, requiring even more time and expense and making their lives even more complicated than they already are. Kind of defeats the purpose of having a confidential address, doesn’t it?
•· Water, gas, electric, and cable TV records include victim names, physical addresses, and confidential mailing addresses. With the “confidential address” co-mingled in this way with the actual physical location, it becomes easier to breach privacy. Lawmakers in California are now considering legislation that will regulate the contents and use of utility records.
•· Property ownership records are available online to anyone, including convicted felons, stalkers, and domestic abusers, through each County Recorder’s Office.
For their protection, crime victims as well as law enforcement personnel, prosecutors, and other vulnerable individuals should have the option of keeping these records private. Survivors In Action is presently lobbying for legislation that would restrict access to property records. Although this proposal is currently under review at the state and federal levels, many obstacles to implementing it still exist, including the costs of software development and of other changes that would be required in every County Recorder’s Office across the country. I cannot emphasize enough that protecting the privacy of a domestic violence or stalking victim can be a matter of life and death. That’s why—at least until these and other dangerous shortcomings of confidential address program are remedied—I encourage representatives of victim support organizations and other advocates to:
•· Inform their clients that confidential address and other privacy protection programs have limitations and should not be assumed to provide full protection.
•· Suggest that their clients seek additional privacy safeguards—such as ◦o Using mail-receiving locations outside their county of residence (this costs money so may not be an option for everyone).◦o When possible, completing applications with outdated information already known to perpetrators.
•· Encourage their clients to contact privacy experts like myself who can advise them on other protections they can and should take on their own.
I believe it is critical for every state to appoint a Privacy Protection Officer who would be responsible for ensuring that advocates and other personnel who assist crime victims are properly trained. Advocates must thoroughly understand privacy protection programs and their limitations and have the knowledge to advise their clients on additional ways they can protect their privacy. It is also critical for victim advocates and our nation’s lawmakers to work closely together to develop more effective measures for improving crime victim privacy protection.
The current system just isn’t working, and victims are being left behind.