Understanding privacy

Most of the time when I think about privacy in my work, I’m thinking about ways to help women keep their personal information private, but there is another side to the privacy discussion as well.

First, why is privacy such a big issue for most survivors of intimate partner violence? Many don’t want people to know about the abuse – it’s embarrassing; they worry about being judged or, worse, not believed; they don’t want their kids to find out; they are in denial about how serious it is, and on and on the list goes.

At least equally important, many are dealing with continuing abuse by their former partner, and a lack of privacy can increase serious safety concerns. If the abuser knows where his former partner lives, he can “drop by” to chat about the kids (or to threaten her); he can park outside her house and watch her; he can damage her car or her home. If he knows where she works, he can harass her there. If he is familiar with her daily routine – when and where she shops, what gym she goes to and when – he can stalk her. All of this can make her wonder why she even bothered to leave him.

While technology is not the source of post-separation harassment, it does provide new opportunities for abusers to intimidate and control their victims. Spyware allows an abuser to keep an eye on everything his former partner does. He can track her through the GPS system on her cell phone, constantly text her, defame or embarrass her with social media posts and impersonate her online. If they shared accounts or, as is common in relationships involving coercive control, all the accounts are in his name, he can tamper with her services, close them down, read everything she writes in emails and, if they have a smart home system, control things like heat and lighting.

Planning for privacy

The legal support workers at Luke’s Place, as at other violence against women organizations, work closely with women to help them manage their use of technology to maximize privacy and safety, offering practical tips and suggestions.

But, a recent article in The Atlantic has left me wondering whether trying to maintain online privacy might be a waste of time. University of Iowa health-privacy scholar Anya Prince writes about her attempts to keep her pregnancy private: she used no pregnancy-related apps; bought anything remotely related to being pregnant in person, in cash and without using reward or point cards; turned off her GPS anytime she went to a medical appointment, and more. Despite her attempts to maintain some privacy, it wasn’t long before she began receiving directed pregnancy and new baby advertising.

If someone whose area of expertise is privacy can’t keep her health information to herself, what is the possibility that ordinary women can keep personal information – which, in the wrong hands, could result in harm to them – private?

On the other hand

Important as privacy for survivors is, another important principle is keeping those survivors safe and, if breaching privacy and sharing personal information are sometimes necessary to do that, I am going to fall on the side of doing so every time.

A number of the recommendations made by the jury in the Renfrew County inquest encourage better information sharing among those who provide services to survivors and/or perpetrators. One speaks to the importance of family and criminal courts sharing relevant information to improve outcomes in both systems. This may seem like a no brainer, but is something that doesn’t currently happen. Another calls for development of a plain language tool to synthesize the various and wordy pieces of privacy legislation (PHIPPA, FIPPA. MFIPPA, etc.) so professionals can make informed decisions about privacy, confidentiality and public safety. Another calls on Ontario to investigate the implementation of an intimate partner violence disclosure protocol (often referred to as Clare’s Law).

One of the recommendations calls for high-risk committees to include IPV service providers. These are community-based teams usually headed by partners from the criminal system: Crowns, police, probation. High-risk committees meet to share information and develop strategies for dealing with domestic violence cases that are deemed to be high risk. While community-based violence against women organizations can be — and are – invited to participate, this is on an “as needed” basis. They are, generally, not permanent members of the committee. The reason for this exclusion most often cited by the criminal system partners is concern for the privacy of the individuals whose situations are being discussed.

This has long been a source of disagreement and tension, as VAW organizations – correctly, in my opinion – take the position that they are committed to maintaining confidentiality and have important information and ideas to share.

I’ve been reviewing the legislation as well as the work of the Office of the Information and Privacy Commissioner in relation to this inquest recommendation. My conclusion is that, when we breach someone’s privacy – say, by sharing personal information about them – to reduce risks to them or someone they are otherwise going to harm, we are not breaking any laws or regulations.

All of the privacy-related regulations in Ontario permit disclosure of personal information in certain circumstances, including when there are serious safety concerns. As determined in a 1999 Supreme Court of Canada case involving a serious assault on a woman, personal information that would otherwise be confidential can be shared in certain circumstances.

Three questions need to be answered to determine whether a situation fits this framework:

  1. Is there a clear link to an identifiable person or group?
  2. Is there a risk of serious bodily harm or death?
  3. Is the danger imminent?

As a government of Ontario resource states:

“Information sharing is critical to the success of collaborative, multi-sectoral risk intervention models and partnerships that aim to mitigate risk and enhance the safety and well-being of Ontario communities. Professionals from a wide range of sectors, agencies and organizations are involved in the delivery of services that address risks faced by vulnerable individuals and groups. These professionals are well-placed to notice when an individual(s) is at an acutely elevated risk of harm, and collaboration among these professionals is vital to harm reduction.”

There are challenges and risks when we share personal information in high-risk gender-based violence cases, but we can’t lose sight of the fact that there are also challenges and risks if we don’t share that information. High risk teams and other community collaborations offer the opportunity to integrate the system’s response to an abuser’s probability of violent behaviour and the survivor’s safety. When everyone is at the table, it is possible to address all aspects of the situation in an integrated manner.

Women’s lives depend on it.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *