Family law advocates raise privacy concerns over guardianship database bill

by | Feb 28, 2022

 

An obscure bill moving quickly through the Florida legislature has family law experts concerned over the establishment of what they say is a far-reaching database and a sweeping expansion of data collection on some of the state’s most vulnerable individuals. The two bills, Senate Bill 1710 and its companion in the House, HB 1349, would require Florida clerks of court to collect and store guardianship information and build a new database to house the data.

The searchable database would be maintained by the Florida Clerks of Court Operations Corporation (CCOC), which is controlled and operated by the Florida Clerks of Court and exists to manage county clerk budgets and court efficiency measurements. But critics say the corporation could possibly also make money from the data.

This bill could be called Data Over Dignity. It’s a vast government overreach — Big Brother in the underwear drawer of some of the most vulnerable people in our state with no public purpose for that much information,” said elder law attorney Twyla Sketchley. “Even if a person’s name isn’t revealed, their geography, their stories, their intimate details will become public, and people will connect the dots.”

Supporters of the bill say the privacy concerns are unfounded because robust security measures are already in place and the courts have been working with the information for a long time.

“The database’s design came from a recommendation from the guardianship task force,” said J.D. Peacock, Clerk of Courts for Okaloosa County, and the chairman of CCOC. “The biggest priority that came out of that task force was a database to help us better understand the scope of the number of guardians out there and the cases they are working on.”

But Sketchley said the bill as written gives about 50,000 people access to the data, most of those within the court system. The bill includes the phrase “at a minimum,” which provides no limit on the information available, opening the door to even wider distribution of a person’s most sensitive personal and financial information. Within such a large universe, the risk is great that there will be some that will do inappropriate or even illegal things with that information that can endanger the health, welfare, and safety of a ward or their financial security.

Addressing the security concerns, however, Peacock says the system would be designed with data protection in mind.

“There are already standards in place regarding access to that information, Peacock said. “There’s no additional data points that aren’t already protected by confidentiality rules.”

The Academy of Florida Elder Law Attorneys also think the legislation goes too far.

“We are grateful for Sen. Bradley’s tireless efforts to work with all parties to address the privacy concerns in the current legislation, the Academy said in an emailed statement. “We recognize the need for reasonable guardianship data collection and the importance of balancing that imperative with the privacy needs of some of Florida’s most vulnerable residents. We thank Sen. Bradley for her hard work to achieve this resolution and move us one step closer to legislation that will benefit all Floridians.”

The Florida Senate Appropriations Committee will take up the bill on Monday, and if passed there, would move to the Rules Committee. The House version of the bill has already cleared Appropriations and is now under consideration by the Health & Human Services Committee.

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