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On Saturday, March 22, a mile-wide mudflow devastated Oso, Wash., 55 miles north of Seattle. The massive damage and mounting casualties have rocked the small community between Arlington and Darrington.

Factors To Consider Before Releasing Names Of Missing People

KUOW Photo/Phyllis Fletcher
Snohomish County Emergency Management Director John Pennington at a press conference on March 24, 2014, in Arlington, Wash.

Ross Reynolds speaks with Joel Reidenberg, who teaches law at Fordham and Princeton universities, about the ethical complexities of releasing the names of those missing or unaccounted for in the Oso mudslide. Reidenberg co-authored a report on privacy and missing persons after natural disasters.Reidenberg: You’ve got to consider, what’s the benefit to the victim? What are the potential risks of publicly releasing the individual thought to be missing at that time? What’s the risk that the names on the list may cause further confusion and distress to the families unnecessarily?

Reynolds: How can emergency officials go wrong by releasing too much or too little information?

Reidenberg:  There are lots of issues that come up with names put on a list following a natural disaster. There may be individuals who are included because family members think they might have been in the area, and others in the family would not have known that, so it can cause undo alarm.

There may be individuals who are affected by a disaster but whose identity, for important reasons, is being kept confidential. A battered spouse, for example, who has a protection order against an abusive partner.

It turns out to be a pretty complex problem. You have to be able to identify what do you count as a missing person? What level of verification would the organization that’s maintaining the list have to do? What’s the privacy policy? It isn’t just the victim who has privacy interests, but also the individual who’s reporting someone missing.

Reynolds: Is there a commonly accepted protocol for keeping names private or making them public?

Reidenberg:  Right now, sadly, it’s being done on an ad hoc basis. Disaster relief organizations should really be thinking in advance about what their protocols would be.