EPIC logo

Before the Department of Housing
and Urban Development
Washington, DC 20410

In The Matter of
Homeless Management Information Systems (HMIS)
Data and Technical Standards Notice

HUD Docket No. FR-4848-N-01

September 22, 2003


The commenters express strong reservations with the Department of Housing and Urban Development's (HUD) proposed guidelines for implementation of Homeless Management Information Systems (HMIS).[1] We set forth in detail below that while the goals of HMIS are laudable, the proposed guidelines are highly privacy-invasive, and create a system of tracking similar to those imposed on individuals convicted of crimes. HMIS will exacerbate risks to the homeless, including politically-motivated purges of homeless populations, and the risk that domestic violence victims will be located by abusive partners through the system. Furthermore, HUD does not have Congressional approval to track the homeless at the level of detail it proposes. It is clear that Congress advised HUD to enumerate the homeless, but it did not advocate a tracking system or new collections of personal information for the homeless. Additionally, we strongly object to law enforcement, Secret Service, and Homeland Security access to HMIS data. The final section of our comments argue that a census-style "point in time" snapshot of benefits recipients is less-invasive and can meet the otherwise well-intentioned goals of HMIS.


EPIC is a public interest research center in Washington, D.C. It was established in 1994 to focus public attention on emerging civil liberties issues and to protect privacy, the First Amendment, and constitutional values. EPIC maintains a web page on privacy and poverty issues at http://www.epic.org/privacy/poverty/.

The Privacy Rights Clearinghouse is a nonprofit consumer information and advocacy program. It offers consumers a unique opportunity to learn how to protect their personal privacy.

Pam Dixon is the author of eight books, and a privacy researcher.

Consumer Action is a non-profit, membership-based organization that was founded in San Francisco in 1971. Since then, Consumer Action has continued to serve consumers nationwide by advancing consumer rights, referring consumers to complaint-handling agencies through our free hotline, publishing educational materials in Chinese, English, Korean, Tagalog, Russian, Vietnamese, and other languages, advocating for consumers in the media and before lawmakers, and comparing prices on credit cards, bank accounts, and long distance services.

The National Consumers League is a private, nonprofit advocacy group representing consumers on marketplace and workplace issues. It is the nation's oldest consumer organization. Its mission is to identify, protect, represent, and advance the economic and social interests of consumers and workers.

Robert Ellis Smith is an author, attorney, and publisher of Privacy Journal, the most authoritative publication in the world on the individual's right to privacy. Founded in 1974, it is the oldest publication on privacy in the world. Smith is the author of Ben Franklin's Web Site: Privacy and Curiosity From Plymouth Rock to the Internet.

The Center for Democracy and Technology works to promote democratic values and constitutional liberties in the digital age. With expertise in law, technology, and policy, CDT seeks practical solutions to enhance free expression and privacy in global communications technologies. CDT is dedicated to building consensus among all parties interested in the future of the Internet and other new communications media.

The American Civil Liberties Union ("ACLU"), The American Civil Liberties Union is the nation's largest civil liberties organization with approximately 400,000 members spread across the United States. In its 80 year history, the ACLU has defended the principles of liberty enshrined in the Bill of Rights , including the right of Privacy and has frequently represented homeless persons and organizations.

The National Legal Aid and Defender Association ("NLADA") is the nation's leading advocate for front-line attorneys and other equal justice professionals--those who make a difference in the lives of low-income clients and their families and communities. Representing legal aid and defender programs, as well as individual advocates, NLADA is proud to be the oldest and largest national, nonprofit membership association devoting 100 percent of its resources to serving the broad equal justice community.


Homeless Management Information Systems (HMIS) are programs intended to track recipients of benefits in order to assess the number of persons receiving care, and to improve efficiency of services to the poor. While well intentioned, proposed mandatory guidelines for HMIS issued by the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) are highly privacy-invasive. Under the proposed guidelines, federally-funded entities that provide support for the poor (Continuums of Care, or "CoCs") will have to:


The proposed guidelines for HMIS are highly privacy invasive. They will expose the homeless to a degree of tracking normally employed against criminals. The proposal to collect sensitive data will have profound effects on individuals' fundamental rights to travel, rights to receive benefits,[8] and personal autonomy.

An Implementation Guide prepared for HUD by the McCormack Institute of Public Affairs on HMIS advises that the agency should resist the temptation to collect too much personal information:

Although a temptation to collect every piece of client information exists, there are several reasons to avoid collecting too much data. For one, the more data that are collected about a client, the greater the privacy risk to that individual. Another reason-the more data the system collects, the greater potential for data entry errors. Finally, buy-in at the agency level will be easier to obtain if case managers are not required to collect much additional information. Balancing the opportunity of data collection and analysis with the privacy concerns and data collection burdens of an HMIS is important.[9]

HUD's proposed guidelines on HMIS abandons this advice. Rather than limiting collection of sensitive information, the proposed guidelines are detailed in requiring the maximum possible personal information about the homeless. The information requirements far exceed Congressional direction to obtain an unduplicated count of the homeless. Instead, the agency has proposed an expansive homeless surveillance system that will place the homeless at risk.

HMIS Lays the Infrastructure for a Centralized, National Homeless Tracking System

HUD's guidelines contain all the necessary elements to create a centralized, nation-wide homeless tracking system. No aspect of the guidelines creates any legally or technically enforceable guarantee or precaution against the creation of such a database in the future.

The proposed guidelines are specific in detailing data consistency standards, and in the requirement that all HMIS data be exportable in a universal formal. This specificity in data collection and portability evinces an intent for future aggregation of personal information.

Even if there is no attempt to nationalize the HMIS database, the CoCs may self-organize over large geographical areas. CoCs could create state-wide or region-wide information sharing agreements.[10]

HMIS Should Not Track Aid Recipients by the Social Security Number

The Social Security Number (SSN) plays a central role in the tracking, identification, and authentication of Americans. In order to protect individuals' privacy with regards to the SSN, Congress passed the Privacy Act of 1974.[11] Among other things, the Act makes it unlawful for a governmental agency to deny a right, benefit, or privilege merely because the individual refuses to disclose his SSN.

Section 7 of the Privacy Act further provides that any agency requesting an individual to disclose his SSN must "inform that individual whether that disclosure is mandatory or voluntary, by what statutory authority such number is solicited, and what uses will be made of it."[12] This provision in the Privacy Act attempts to limit the use of the number to only those purposes where there is clear legal authority to collect the SSN.

A database of SSNs presents privacy and identity theft risks to individuals enrolled in the system. HUD should employ an alternate identifier to mark aid recipients. A recent Federal Trade Commission report notes that 27.3 million Americans have been victims of identity theft in the last five years. 9.9 million have been victimized in the last year alone. The FTC also found that consumer victims experienced $5 billion in out-of-pocket expenses. [13] HMIS could exacerbate this growing crime by requiring greater use and exposure of the SSN.

HMIS Is Poised to Expand

A HUD-funded report on six sample HMIS products shows that the systems are capable of collecting more data elements, and centralizing the data. One system made by Bowman Internet Systems can collect driver's license numbers, aliases, immigration status, and voter registration status, in addition to the elements required by the guidelines.[14] Other HMIS implementations can collect a photograph of the data subject, their native language, and parental status.[15]

HMIS Is Expensive and Will Detract from CoC's Ability to Serve the Needy

While some HMIS software is free, many of the systems are very expensive, and will cut into budgets of CoCs who are trying to directly assist the homeless. For instance, the HUD-sponsored In Depth Report showed that the two-year operating cost of a system could cost between $37,000-290,000.[16]

HMIS Creates Unreasonable Security Risks

Individuals enrolled in the HMIS database will be exposed to significant information security risks. When information is aggregated in a single place, such as a state or regional HMIS database, it becomes more valuable to malicious actors, and is more likely to be attacked.

As the Implementation Guide prepared for HUD notes, there are structural security risks in HMIS. These include risks presented by placing individuals' data online and in staff members divulging information, especially at facilities with high turnover rates.[17]

Additionally, the In Depth Report on HMIS indicates that several popular database implementations present security risks. For example, one system made by "Bowman Internet Systems" uses Microsoft IIS to place data subjects' information online.[18] IIS is no longer even used by the majority of Internet servers. IIS has been the successful target of many malicious attacks, including the Nimda and Code Red viruses.

Another HMIS implementation, ANCHoR, which currently is used across the country, does not even have an audit trail.[19] Audit trails are essential, especially in environments where "insiders" are unsupervised or otherwise able to disclose information without oversight.

HMIS Will Cause Concrete Harms to the Homeless

HMIS Will Exacerbate the Risk of Politically-Motivated Purges of the Homeless

The homeless are frequently purged from neighborhoods for political reasons. The practice, sometimes referred to as "homeless dumping," has been documented by many newspapers and human rights groups. The homeless are also targeted by laws that are selectively enforced to rid certain areas of them.

We have documented instances of discrimination against the homeless below. These acts of discrimination could be much more intense if HMIS programs were available to the police or other officials who wish to rid an area of homeless persons.

Furthermore, security agents in advance of a major event like the Olympics may use the HMIS database for improper purposes under the pretense of "national security" interests. Under the national security access provisions, they could gain access to the entire database with very little oversight or public accountability.

The Problem of Law Enforcement Abuse of Databases Is Well Documented; HMIS Provides More Opportunities for Such Abuse

Police misuse of law enforcement and other databases occurs so frequently that Tech Television, a news media organization that focuses on technology, published the "Top 10 List of Police Database Abuses" in June 2002.[20] That article details occurrences where police used law enforcement databases to locate individuals that they eventually killed,[21] and a case where agents sold database information to organized crime syndicates.[22]

In January 2001, a 12-year veteran of the Drug Enforcement Agency, Emilio Calatayud, was charged with selling personal information from police databases. Calatayud made thousands of dollars by selling the personal information to private investigators from the National Crime Information Center (NCIC), California Law Enforcement Telecommunications System (CLETS), and the Narcotics and Dangerous Drug Information System (NDDIS) databases. On the first day of this trial in February 2002, the DEA agent skipped bail but was eventually captured in Mexico.

In May 2002, FBI agents Lynn Wingate and Jeffrey Royer were indicted on fraud charges relating to use of government databases.[23] The FBI agents allegedly used their access to agency databases to provide information on companies for stock manipulation purposes. One agent allegedly searched the NCIC database and used information contained within it to smear a company executive and lower stock prices. Both allegedly used confidential FBI databases to monitor government investigations of the other stock manipulators.

HMIS Will Increase Risks of Domestic Violence

Studies have demonstrated that many people seeking benefits are doing so because they have recently been a victim of domestic violence:[24]

Many studies demonstrate the contribution of domestic violence to homelessness, particularly among families with children. A 1990 Ford Foundation study found that 50% of homeless women and children were fleeing abuse...More recently, in a study of 777 homeless parents (the majority of whom were mothers) in ten U.S. cities, 22% said they had left their last place of residence because of domestic violence...In addition, 46% of cities surveyed by the U.S. Conference of Mayors identified domestic violence as a primary cause of homelessness."[25]

HMIS will increase risks to these vulnerable populations. Victims are at greatest risk of further violence immediately after fleeing an abusive relationship. Violent family members and others may be able to locate individuals in shelters through the HMIS database. This can occur through employees who have access and improperly disclose information, through the broad law enforcement exemptions, or through database security problems.

HUD has attempted to address this risk by exempting domestic violence shelters from reporting requirements. This solution does not fully address the risk, because victims of domestic violence may seek assistance from many different kinds of CoCs. To fully protect this vulnerable population, identifying information regarding victims of domestic violence should not reported.


No Law Has Passed Mandating HMIS, Or Homeless Surveillance on the Level HUD Has Proposed

HUD has clearly overreacted to Congressional requests to more effectively enumerate the homeless. No Congressional recommendation cited by HUD in the Data and Technical Standards Notice calls for homeless tracking at the level specified by the agency. Furthermore, all Congressional recommendations listed are derived from conference or committee reports that do not have the effect of law.

Language excerpted by HUD from the Omnibus Appropriations Act of 2003 (Pub. L. No. 108-7) expresses concern that the agency was "not taking the proper steps to determine the extent to which HUD's homeless assistance programs are meeting the needs of chronically homeless people." This section further states: "Therefore, HUD is directed to begin collecting data on the percentage and number of beds and supportive services programs that are serving people who are chronically disabled and/or chronically homeless." [26] This direction by Congress does not require tracking of individuals at the level HUD has proposed.

Similarly, other reports urge greater collection of data without an actual requirement that identity be tracked. For instance, House Report 105-610 stated that HUD should: "collect, at a minimum, the following data: The unduplicated count of clients served; client characteristics such as age, race, disability status, units [days] and type of housing received (shelter, transitional, permanent); and services rendered. Outcome information such as housing stability, income, and health status should be collected as well."[27] Again, nothing in this directive requires HUD to track the homeless as the level specified in the Data and Technical Standards Notice.

Senate Report 106-410 provides support for a less-invasive alternative that we have described below. It directs HUD "to continue on an annual basis to provide a report on a nationally representative sample of jurisdictions whose local MIS data can be aggregated yearly to document the change in demographics of homelessness, demand for homeless assistance, to identify patterns in utilization of assistance, and to demonstrate the effectiveness of assistance.[28] As we describe in greater detail below, assessing the needs of the homeless based on a nationally-representative sample will be less privacy-invasive, and less expensive.

Congress' and HUD's Goals Could be Met With Less Invasive Alternatives

The goal of HMIS is to "accurately describe the scope of the problem [homelessness] and the effectiveness of efforts to ameliorate it."[29] HUD could reach this goal through less invasive measures. For instance, the agency could pursue a "point in time" approach, where a representative sample of the homeless are surveyed at one time. This would serve the purpose of achieving an unduplicated count of the chronically homeless and a history of benefits received, and it would require no collection of personal identifying information at all. Just as the Census is performed, information from the data collection could be compared over time to evaluate trends in serving the poor.

Such an approach will not only be more respectful of privacy, but on balance will be more effective. Some individuals may not be able to remember all the services they have received. However, since this is an approach that does not require the capture and storage of personal information, it will encourage individuals to be more forthcoming about their situation and past care. In this case, privacy enables truthfulness and the collection of more accurate data, as individuals surveyed by a point in time snapshot will can be assured that their information will not be tracked and linked to their identities over time. A point in time system is also a more balanced approach to those who are situationally homeless. It is simply unfair and unbalanced to subject the situationally homeless to HMIS on the terms that HUD has proposed.


HUD Should Not Mandate HMIS As Proposed

HUD should not mandate a HMIS as proposed in the Federal Register notice. For reasons explained above, the system is too privacy invasive, exceeds the Congressional call for an enumeration of the homeless, and less invasive alternatives, such as a snapshot performed on a nationally-representative sample of the homeless, could satisfy Congress' goals.

HUD Should Rewrite the Law Enforcement, Secret Security, and National Security Access Provisions in their Entirety

The examples of misuse of government databases are many. Accordingly, HUD should exercise great care in fashioning the rules for access to HMIS, which contains information that could be more sensitive than the arrest and location information that is stored in many law enforcement databases. Therefore, we recommend that the law enforcement, Secret Service, and national security access provisions be rewritten in their entirety. Absent exigent circumstances, agents of all three interests should have to present a warrant or court order before gaining access to HMIS information. The HMIS user should minimize the amount of information given to the agent to the least amount necessary to accomplish a lawful government goal. Only in rare instances, such as a public emergency, should the entire database be exposed to law enforcement, Secret Service, or national security agents. A mere visit by a public official, or claim of an interest in protecting national security should never justify access to HMIS data.

When law enforcement, Secret Service, or national security agents do obtain HMIS information, there should be a record made of the access that includes the purposes for which the information was transferred, what information was transferred, and who transferred and received it. The HMIS user should strive to give notice to the affected data subjects of the access to their personal information, unless directed not to by a court.

With All Approaches, Stronger Privacy and Security Protections Are Needed

To reiterate, we strongly urge HUD to start anew and to adopt a less privacy and security threatening approach. The new proposal should adopt stronger technical and legal protections for personal information in any HMIS system. This could be achieved through structural and procedural changes to the HMIS system, including:

Respectfully submitted,


Chris Jay Hoofnagle
Associate Director
Electronic Privacy Information Center
1718 Connecticut Ave. NW 200
Washington, DC 20009
202-483-1140 x108

1 Homeless Management Information Services (HMIS) Data and Technical Standards Notice, "Data and Technical Standards Notice," 68 Fed. Reg. 43,430 (Jul. 22, 2003), available at http://www.hud.gov/offices/cpd/homeless/rulesandregs/fr4848-n-01.pdf/.
2 Id. at 43,438-9.
3 Id. at 43,439-49/
4 Id. at 43,431.
5 Id. at 43,454.
6 Id.
7 Id.
8 Goldberg v. Kelly, 394 U.S. 254 (1970) (receipt of benefits is an entitlement, protected by due process rights).
9 Homeless Management Information Systems: Implementation Guide ("Implementation Guide"), Center for Social Policy, John W. McCormack Institute of Public Affairs, Sept. 2002, at 21, available at http://www.hud.gov/offices/cpd/homeless/hmis/implementation/index.cfm.
10 Implementation Guide, at ii, 1.
11 5 U.S.C. § 552a.
12 Id.
13 Identity Theft Survey Report, Federal Trade Commission, Sept. 2003, http://www.ftc.gov/os/2003/09/synovatereport.pdf.
14 Homeless management Information Systems: An In-Depth Look ("In Depth Report"), Center for Social Policy, John W. McCormack Institute of Public Affairs, at 23-30, Jan. 2001, available at http://www.hud.gov/utilities/intercept.cfm?/offices/cpd/homeless/hmis/consumerreport.pdf.
15 Id.
16 Id.
17 Implementation Guide, at 4.
18 In Depth Report, at 23.
19 Id. at 62-69.
20 James Hamilton, Top 10 List of Police Database Abuses, TechTV, June 11, 2002, at http://www.techtv.com/cybercrime/privacy/story/0,23008,3387549,00.html
21 M. L. Elrick, Police say suspended cop abused database, Detective says he checked on wife before her fatal shooting, Detroit Free Press, Aug. 8, 2001, at http://www.freep.com/news/mich/lein8_20010808.htm.
22 Jeff German, FBI-leaks investigation widens, Law Vegas Sun, Aug. 28, 2001, at http://www.lasvegassun.com/sunbin/stories/sun/2001/aug/28/512276279.html.
23 FBI stock fraud alleged, Agents allegedly passed confidential information on investigations to Internet stock analyst, CNN, May 23, 2002, at http://money.cnn.com/2002/05/23/news/fbi_stocktips/.
24 Domestic Violence and Homelessness, NCH Fact Sheet #8, National Coalition for the Homeless, April 1999, at http://www.nationalhomeless.org/domestic.html.
25 Id. (internal citations omitted).
26 Data and Technical Standards Notice, at 43430.
27 Id. at 43431.
28 Id. at 43431.
29 Implementation Guide at 1.