New York City's New Social Services Database Raises Privacy Issues For Low Income New Yorkers
THURSDAY, JUNE 16, 2011

New York City's new social services database on four million residents, including most of the low-income New Yorkers, raises privacy issues. In a New York Times article, Steven Banks, Attorney-in-Chief, warned of the perils and said that “with all of the agencies now connected, an error made by one in recording information will cascade through every aspect of your life.”


The New York Times
June 16, 2011
Concern for Vast Social Services Database on the City’s Neediest
By Anemona Hartocollis

New York City has spent the past 18 months developing a database on four million residents, most of them the city’s neediest, which officials say will enhance social services but which advocates for the poor say could put their privacy at risk.

Using data-sharing concepts developed by the Department of Homeland Security and other law enforcement agencies, the database links together vast amounts of information gathered by city agencies that previously maintained their files separately.

Now, workers in an array of city departments will have access to information about nearly half of the city’s residents, including welfare and food stamp payments, child care vouchers, and records of Medicaid enrollment and stays in public housing and shelters, among other kinds of social service records.

City officials said the database, which has been tested in some offices since last summer, would improve services by supplying verified information that people do not frequently carry with them, may not remember or may not wish to divulge. It could be used, they say, to locate noncustodial parents, to fill out Medicaid applications so public hospitals can be quickly reimbursed for treatment, to respond to 311 calls or to find mothers with newborn babies who are eligible for home health visits.

“What drove us was this vision around more holistic treatment of families,” said Linda Gibbs, the deputy mayor for health and human services.

Advocates for the poor say it is true that their clients often fall through the cracks because of the lack of communication between city agencies. But they also worry that the network may perpetuate mistakes, allow city workers to fish for personal information about clients and violate privacy.

“The brave new world is actually here,” said Steven Banks, attorney in chief for the Legal Aid Society.

In its initial stages, the project, called Worker Connect, which cost $28 million to develop, draws selected data from the Administration for Children’s Services, the child welfare agency; the Department of Homeless Services; the Housing Authority; records of seniors’ rent subsidies from the Department of Finance; and the Human Resources Administration, which administers Medicaid, welfare and food stamps in the city.

But thousands of workers in nine city agencies will have access to the information, including employees from Family Court, legal services, child protection, the Department for the Aging, corrections, public hospitals and domestic violence prevention.

The technology is based on the National Information Exchange Model, known as NIEM, which was started in 2005 by the federal Departments of Justice and Homeland Security. The exchange model helps agencies with different types of databases communicate and has been used, for example, to allow the police to track warrants across state boundaries.

More recently, the federal Department of Health and Human Services joined the NIEM executive steering council, and is promoting the shared data model for efforts like preventing Medicare fraud and enforcing child support. The city intends to contribute to those efforts, Ms. Gibbs said.

Other places across the country, like Montgomery County, Md., and Alameda County, Calif., are developing similar projects, but New York’s version dwarfs them in size and planning.

Ms. Gibbs said that if it could work out its privacy issues, the city might expand the database to include other information, like records of domestic violence and public school records, which would include more than one million students at any given time. It could also eventually be used to share data with nonprofit providers, she said.

A typical file would contain a name, date of birth, Social Security number, address, phone number, names of the head of household and other members of the household, income, education level, race, language and type of city benefits or services that are received, like food stamps, housing and Medicaid. It might also include documents like a lease, a pay stub, a driver’s license or a birth certificate that have been previously submitted to a city agency.

The technology is designed to look for clues that would allow it to match, when appropriate, say, Mary Smith and Maria Smith and identify them as the same person.

Though it might cut through some bureaucratic layers, “this sounds extremely broad, and I would be concerned about how it’s used and what kinds of protections they are putting in,” said Jane Greengold Stevens, director of special litigation for the New York Legal Assistance Group.

Mr. Banks of Legal Aid warned that “with all of the agencies now connected, an error made by one in recording information will cascade through every aspect of your life.”

The city said it was aware of the perils and had worked to protect sensitive information from reaching the wrong eyes. Ms. Gibbs said that to protect privacy, workers would have different levels of access, confidential health records would be excluded, and “electronic fingerprints” would identify the worker involved in each transaction. “Not everybody is allowed to see the big picture,” she said. “There are a number of doors that open and close.”

The database came into play recently, as Ridelisa Sanchez, the 18-year-old mother of a 1-year-old son, arrived at the city’s homeless intake center in the Bronx. She had been removed from her own mother’s house by the Administration for Children’s Services in September because of neglect. By typing her name into the new interface, the caseworker was able, within minutes, to find Ms. Sanchez’s birth certificate, baptismal certificate and her mother’s driver’s license, in order to help document her identity and housing history, which Homeless Services requires.

Workers said the database shaved about 45 minutes from the six-hour intake process. As for Ms. Sanchez, she was tickled to regain her baptismal certificate, which was printed out for her. “I lost it when I was 13,” she said. “It’s nice to have.”

The database has also been used to find information that clients were unwilling to provide. About a month ago, Patrice McRae, a child protective specialist with the Administration for Children’s Services, was looking for two children who the agency suspected had been neglected. The children’s mother claimed the children were with her in Virginia, but their father said they were with a cousin in the Bronx, though he could not provide the address. Tapping into the new interface, Ms. McRae used the mother’s name and the cousin’s approximate age to find a public housing record for the cousin; the children were found, and are now in foster care.

Not long ago, the agency would have had to find the children the old-fashioned way, by combing through paper records, sending letters to other agencies and issuing an Amber alert. “It could be weeks, it could be months” before the clues came back, Ms. McRae said.