A Conversation With A State's Department Of Justice

This is post 3 of a 3-part series about real world privacy threats. We talked with members of a State Department of Justice about the resources they provide communities and those suffering from harassment, stalking, and abuse.

Because of the sensitive nature of their work, we aren’t sharing their personal information. However, we encourage you to reach out to the Department of Justice in your state if you’re in need of support to keep yourself safe.


Introduction

Kanary: Thanks so much for making the time to chat. Our team has worked with people struggling because they’re being threatened by someone who was once close to them. Reclaiming privacy and security when a close relationship goes wrong is extraordinarily challenging. Looking forward to hearing your experience, recommendations, and sharing the resources you provide.

DOJ: It’s really important that you’re thinking about these scenarios. They’re often accompanied by trauma that doesn’t have a simple or easy solution. Not that technology isn’t important, it’s just more important to collaborate with experts across industries and groups. The most important thing is to have empathy and listen to victims.

Kanary: We have a lot to learn. Thanks again for sharing your advice and perspective. What can people do if they find themselves in a serious situation?

DOJ: Our department works primarily with survivors of abuse and our objective is to help people access resources to get them back in a supported, safe, and secure environment - for them to start living their life again. State DoJs should have these resources whether they’re social workers, advocates, law enforcement, or pro bono legal assistance.

Kanary: When someone reaches out to you, where do you start?

DOJ: We start by getting them into a physically safe environment. Then the next step is to help them create a safety plan. Every individual has a different circumstance. They may need social services, medical attention, financial support. Creating a plan focused on all aspects of their safety helps us identify priorities, resources we can provide, and other public or pro bono services. Getting the plan down is critical to preventing the problem from getting worse or similar problems happening again.

Address Protection

Kanary: So you’re working with victims directly or referring them to other public services?

DOJ: If they’re in our state, we’ll work with them directly. If not, we’ll refer them to an in-state resource. Part of our work involves training advocates across the country. Advocates typically work on small teams or are volunteers at non profit groups focused on domestic violence, abuse, and harassment. We meet to share research and best practices for supporting victims. We also run small grant programs for groups who are particularly under resourced.

When it comes to privacy and protecting personal information, we also provide an address confidentiality program.

Kanary: Interesting, how does that work?

DOJ: It’s sort of like a PO Box. We give someone who enrolls in the program a legal address which routes their mail through a secure state location. The state works as a middle man to keep their actual address and location private. We then forward their mail to their actual address.

Kanary: How are people using it?

DOJ: People use it for home addresses, work addresses, and school addresses. Places they need to return to over and over again and need to be safe. As I mentioned before, our work focuses on supporting survivors of assault, abuse, domestic violence, harassment, and stalking. These scenarios can escalate quickly and can impact people for a long time even if they’re careful about who they share information with.

Kanary: Can anyone who is concerned about their safety or at risk sign up?

DOJ: There are requirements such as you need to be a resident in the state. You have to meet with a trained assistant to create a safety plan first. Like I said before, protecting someone’s address is just a small piece of protecting their overall safety. We help them think about worst case scenarios and create backup plans. These are things that are particularly hard to do alone and even harder to do when dealing with the stress of abuse or threats.

Kanary: What if someone wants to protect a family member or loved one?

DOJ: They’d have to be your dependent or you’d have to be their guardian. Aside from those cases, it’s very rare.

Kanary: That makes sense. It’s crazy how difficult it is to remove information once it’s out there. What kind of tips do you share with people to help them remember to use their new address?

DOJ: We keep our advice fairly straight forward. Have the new address available on your computer to use for online registration or shopping. Keep it in your phone or have it written in a notebook you keep with you. Anything they can do, especially early on, to break the habit of sharing their actual address.

Also they have to agree to not share their actual address while they’re in the program. If we have the address confidentiality program set up but the actual address continues to be shared, it defeats the purpose and all the hard work.

Once It's Out There

Kanary: Yeah, once information is out there, it’s difficult to control.

DOJ: Exactly. Protecting someone’s address and personal information is harder than ever. We often work with attorneys who help us remove victims’ information across websites. We’ll draft letters. Get injunctions. But it is still challenging. For example, LexisNexis sells a huge database of personal information to law students for legal research. The less comprehensive that data is, the less useful it is for students or professionals who pay for it for case work or research. I can understand from a business perspective why they’d resist removing someone’s information. But when it comes to a serious privacy threat, they should respond.

Even if they don’t respond, what we’ve noticed is that you can change what these systems know about you by feeding it different information. For our members, they start using their new address and most of these data brokers pick up the address and reflect the change.

Kanary: That’s cool, sounds like adversarial Machine Learning where you’re feeding a system false information to stop them from tracking you. In this case, it’s actually their new legal address but similar outcome. Luckily states are passing more data privacy laws that require them to respond to these requests. If they don’t comply, they’ll be fined or forced to comply by a judge.

DOJ: That’s true but they are also very hard to enforce. The best we can do right now is tell people to google themselves periodically, remove themselves from the data brokers they can, and make sure their sensitive information isn’t popping up on search results. This is why Kanary is so exciting - a more targeted and efficient way for people to find their information and protect it.

Kanary: That’s super encouraging to hear. We’re working on it and improving as we work with more sites and information. Any other resources you’d like to share?

DOJ: I just want to encourage people to reach out to their state Department of Justice to seek support and resources if they are a victim or feel threatened. If we don’t have the resources to help someone, we do our best to connect them with those who do.

Kanary: Great - thank you so much for sharing this information and being a resource for Kanary and those who visit our site.

DOJ: Of course. Happy to work together and help however we can.


This post was last updated October 8, 2020.

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