Skip to main content

Fordham Law and Commons Lab Partner to Address Privacy Issues Raised by Missing Persons Databases

The Fordham Center on Law and Information Policy at Fordham Law School and the Commons Lab of the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars are working together on a project focused on privacy and information systems that are being developed to help locate missing persons during natural disasters.

The Fordham Center on Law and Information Policy (CLIP) at Fordham Law School and the Commons Lab of the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars are pleased to announce a joint project on privacy and information systems that are being developed to assist efforts to locate missing persons during natural disasters.

The Privacy and Missing Persons in Natural Disasters Project is part of an international effort led by the Missing Persons Community of Interest (MPCI) that is unifying a wide array of databases and technologies to enhance searches for missing persons following natural disasters. MPCI, which emerged in response to the 2010 Haitian earthquake, includes participants from local disaster management, international humanitarian relief organizations, private sector technology companies, non-profits, and digital volunteer communities.

The Project will evaluate the privacy challenges presented by MPCI’s efforts, such as protecting sensitive information provided to locate a missing person and compliance issues related to privacy laws. Fordham’s CLIP will propose strategies and recommendations to help MPCI reduce the risk of privacy infringement and protect the safety and well-being of affected individuals, while maintaining the efficacy of missing persons’ registries.

“Fordham Law School is extremely proud that the Wilson Center has formed this partnership with the Law School’s Center on Law and Information Policy,” said Michael M. Martin, Dean of Fordham Law. “CLIP is consistently at the forefront of information law, and its project with the Missing Persons Community of Interest nobly incorporates CLIP’s legal prowess with Fordham Law’s mission of practicing law ‘in the service of others.’”

Fordham Law Professor Joel Reidenberg, the academic director of CLIP, said, “We are excited to undertake this important public interest project to help MPCI navigate through challenging privacy issues while providing critical services during times of crisis across the globe.”

Lea Shanley, a senior program associate at the Wilson Center and director of the Commons Lab within the Center’s Science and Technology Innovation Program, added, “Respecting the privacy and protecting the safety of missing persons and their families after a disaster is of critical importance. Our lab, along with the digital volunteer group CrisisCommons, is pleased to be able to support MPCI through this partnership to provide guidance on privacy best practices and codes of conduct.”

The CLIP team will include Robert Gellman, a privacy and information policy consultant who previously served as chief counsel to the U.S. House of Representative Government Operations Committee and served as a member of the National Committee on Vital and Health Statistics at the U.S. Health and Human Services Department. Tim Schwartz, the founder of MPCI, will serve as a technical consultant.

“Over the last 10 years, many missing persons data bases have sprung up, and we have found that the ability to connect people quickly has been extremely helpful during large-scale disasters such as the Japanese tsunami and the earthquake in Haiti,” Schwartz said. “But the impacts these technologies have on matters of individual privacy have not been assessed. This study will hopefully give us the ability to reflect on what we have been doing and create a framework so we can better serve the world with these systems.”

Professor Reidenberg will lead the project team, which will also include Jamela Debelak, CLIP’s executive director, and two student researchers, Adam Elewa and Nancy Liu.

The team will produce a report for the October 2012 meeting of MPCI that will provide analysis and advice that will be useful to those making policy, organizational, and technical choices interconnecting online registries and that will help key players in the technical community incorporate effective privacy protections in online information registry systems.

The project is supported in part by a $30,000 gift made by Fordham University alumnus and trustee Ed Stroz and his digital risk management company, Stroz Friedberg.

The Commons Lab of the Science and Technology Innovation Program (STIP) at the Wilson Center advances research and policy analysis on emerging technologies and methods–such as social media, crowdsourcing, and volunteered geographic information–that empower individuals (“citizen sensors”) to collectively generate actionable scientific data, to augment and support disaster response and recovery, and to provide input to government decision-making, among many other activities. STIP provides critical yet nonpartisan research for the policymaking community and guides officials in the design of new governance frameworks. It gauges crucial public support for science and weighs the overall risks and benefits of technology for society at large.

The Fordham Center on Law and Information Policy (CLIP) was founded to make significant contributions to the development of law and policy for the information economy and to teach the next generation of leaders. CLIP brings together scholars, the bar, the business community, technology experts, the policy community, students, and the public to address and assess policies and solutions for cutting-edge issues that affect the evolution of the information economy.

Related Program

Science and Technology Innovation Program

The Science and Technology Innovation Program (STIP) brings foresight to the frontier. Our experts explore emerging technologies through vital conversations, making science policy accessible to everyone.  Read more