What if a government agency is building a database using victim information that is of public record?
If the information is only from public records and you are a government agency, it may be possible to enter survivor’s personally identifying information without a release of information. However, as a best practice, it is important that survivors are notified that their information will be entered into this database. In addition, provisions should be made for cases where the record is sealed or where the abuser works in the system (courts, law enforcement, etc.) and, if possible, a survivor should be allowed to opt out of having her/his information collected and maintained in this way.
If you are a government entity and a survivor’s information is entered erroneously into a database or that database is breached, you could be liable. It is also important to consider that the information in the database could be subject to a request under the state’s sunshine laws from the media or any citizen.
Survivors should be informed of all uses of their information, as well as the consequences of that data collection, and should be able to decline. Agencies using survivor information should have policies and procedures to protect the information from intentional or unintentional disclosure. Victims may assume that going to court has some level of public disclosure, but they may not have the same assumption about the compilation of the information made by your government office. Therefore, s/he should be given notice about the information that is being compiled, and you and s/he should both recognize that, depending on what is collected and how it is maintained, it could become even more harmful if it gets released or used in ways that were unintended.
It also is important to ensure that the information going into the database is only the information that is of public record and nothing additional. Whenever contemplating the creation of a database you should weigh the benefits of collecting and storing the information with the consequences of having the information being used and accessed in ways that are unanticipated. Whether it is helpful to an agency is not the standard for determining whether confidentiality requires a release of information from or notice to an individual whose information is being used, complied or shared.