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Respondentsí Understandings of Confidentiality in a Changing Privacy Environment

Eleanor Gerber and Ashley Landreth

KEY WORDS: confidentiality, cognitive interviews, informed consent


Pledges of confidentiality are widely viewed as important in motivating respondent participation in surveys. Recent developments such as new privacy laws, increased media attention to identity theft, and highly publicized data leakages have changed the environment in which respondents interpret such a pledge. In addition, informed consent requirements have made the wording of confidentiality statements more complex. The aim of this paper is to examine respondent beliefs about confidentiality in this new environment. New data is compared to findings from interviews about privacy conducted during Census 2000.

During 2006, fifty cognitive interviews were carried out regarding a cover letter intended for use in the 2008 census test. Three different versions of the letter were examined. These interviews assess the confidentiality language, including an informed consent statement about uses of administrative records from other government agencies to augment census results.

Respondents appear much more aware of identity information issues than did respondents in 2000. Now, more respondents regard the pledge as inherently conditional: that is, they do not regard it as an absolute promise that their data will not be revealed. They focus on the policy of the agency to keep data confidential, but are highly aware that leaks occur through mistake or malfeasance. The communication about administrative records use is widely misunderstood as a two-way exchange between agencies. Some respondents believe this is a breach of confidentiality, but others accept it because they assume that all government agencies share data. Government data sharing is acceptable if the respondentís main concern is identity theft. A few respondents give up on privacy, noting that individual information is widely available on the Internet.


Source: U.S. Census Bureau, Statistical Research Division

Created: September 24, 2007
Last revised: September 24, 2007

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Source: U.S. Census Bureau | Statistical Research Division | (301) 763-3215 (or |   Last Revised: October 08, 2010