Tusla’s collection of data on rape raises privacy concerns

Rape Crisis Network among NGOs before UN committee in Geneva on Monday

The Rape Crisis Network is worried inexpert use of  data may result in the accidental identification of survivors. Photograph: Getty Images/iStockphoto

The Rape Crisis Network is worried inexpert use of data may result in the accidental identification of survivors. Photograph: Getty Images/iStockphoto

 

Concerns have been expressed that Tusla’s handling of information from rape crisis centres may result in the accidental identification of survivors seeking counselling.

Rape Crisis Network Ireland (RCNI), one of a number of Irish NGOs due to appear before a UN committee in Geneva on Monday, said the issue of a reliable database and statistics on domestic and sexual violence in the State would be raised as a key issue.

The Government will be examined by a UN committee on its compliance with the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (Cedaw).

Funding withdrawn

RCNI has been engaged with Tusla on the collection of statistics on rape survivors since funding for the network was withdrawn in 2015.

The network represents 11 of 16 rape crisis centres and Tusla had expressed concern that data was not available in one place for all of them. The State agency has since entered into separate service-level agreements with rape crisis centres and has indicated it may withdraw their funding if they do not hand over data.

A report published by Tusla last October using data submitted by some of the centres was removed from the organisation’s website after the RCNI expressed concern about its methodology.

Tusla told rape crisis centres in a memo last August that it was “not looking for, nor do we want to establish, either purposefully or by accident, the personal identity of any [clients]”.

Records released under the Freedom of Information Act show, however, a note on the draft of the memo that states “in the long term” the data Tusla requires might need to be “individualised”.

Director of RCNI Clíona Saidleár, in Geneva for the hearings on Monday, said the organisation had spoken of “anonymised” and “disaggregated” data but that its use of these terms appeared confused.

“This is very sensitive data and it requires sophisticated engagement and knowledge and a particular skillset,” Dr Saidleár said.

RCNI is seeking the restoration of €125,000 in funding so it can continue to provide the database developed over a decade ago.

‘Credible risk’

The organisation said last November there was a “current and credible risk” to the privacy of clients based on Tusla’s contracts with rape crisis centres.

Tusla has issued a new questionnaire to rape crisis centres for this year, along with their service agreements.

The manager of one centre told The Irish Times they felt there were “question marks” over some of the details Tusla was seeking.

“I have no hesitation in sitting down with Tusla and telling them where all the funding is going and I can give them very general stuff,” they said.

But the person expressed concern about the potential for identifying clients, for example by ethnicity, particularly in a small population.

“Our main focus and our priority is to protect our clients. Everything else comes second to that,” they said.

The Government delegation will be questioned by the UN committee on a range of issues, including on plans for a referendum on the “right to life” amendment to the Constitution.

In a submission in advance of the hearing, the National Women’s Council of Ireland told the committee that “persistent structural inequalities for women” remained.

Ireland was last examined on compliance with the convention in 2005.