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Legal Authority and Policies for Data Linkage at Census

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Data Protection and Privacy

Federal law authorizes and directs the Census Bureau to use records previously collected by other federal agencies and state, tribal, or local governments, as well as private organizations, and to seek out this information instead of conducting direct inquiries. Using information previously collected by other organizations saves money and reduces burden. These same laws direct the Census Bureau to protect the confidentiality of this information, just as it protects the information it gathers directly from individuals and businesses.

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Census Law: Title 13, United States Code

Protecting Information

§9. Information as confidential; exception

(a) Neither the Secretary, nor any other officer or employee of the Department of Commerce or bureau or agency thereof, or local government census liaison, may, except as provided in section 8 or 16 or chapter 10 of this title or section 210 of the Departments of Commerce, Justice, and State, the Judiciary, and Related Agencies Appropriations Act, 1998 or section 2(f) of the Census of Agriculture Act of 1997-

(1) use the information furnished under the provisions of this title for any purpose other than the statistical purposes for which it is supplied; or

(2) make any publication whereby the data furnished by any particular establishment or individual under this title can be identified; or

(3) permit anyone other than the sworn officers and employees of the Department or bureau or agency thereof to examine the individual reports.

No department, bureau, agency, officer, or employee of the Government, except the Secretary in carrying out the purposes of this title, shall require, for any reason, copies of census reports which have been retained by any such establishment or individual. Copies of census reports which have been so retained shall be immune from legal process, and shall not, without the consent of the individual or establishment concerned, be admitted as evidence or used for any purpose in any action, suit, or other judicial or administrative proceeding.

(b) The provisions of subsection (a) of this section relating to the confidential treatment of data for particular individuals and establishments, shall not apply to the censuses of governments provided for by subchapter III of chapter 5 of this title, nor to interim current data provided for by subchapter IV of chapter 5 of this title as to the subjects covered by censuses of governments, with respect to any information obtained therefor that is compiled from, or customarily provided in, public records.

Using Administrative Data
§6. Information from other Federal departments and agencies; acquisition of reports from other governmental and private sources

(a) The Secretary, whenever he considers it advisable, may call upon any other department, agency, or establishment of the Federal Government, or of the government of the District of Columbia, for information pertinent to the work provided for in this title.

(b) The Secretary may acquire, by purchase or otherwise, from States, counties, cities, or other units of government, or their instrumentalities, or from private persons and agencies, such copies of records, reports, and other material as may be required for the efficient and economical conduct of the censuses and surveys provided for in this title.

(c) To the maximum extent possible and consistent with the kind, timeliness, quality and scope of the statistics required, the Secretary shall acquire and use information available from any source referred to in subsection (a) or (b) of this section instead of conducting direct inquiries.

The Privacy Act

The Privacy Act establishes requirements for Systems of Records Notices (SORN), which describe routine uses of individuals’ information, including disclosures to the Census Bureau.

  • Exemptions provide for disclosing information with identifiers to the Census Bureau, “for purposes of planning or carrying out a census or survey or related activity pursuant to the provisions of title 13.”
  • Establishes that “matches performed to support any research or statistical project, the specific data of which may not be used to make decisions concerning the rights, benefits, or privileges of specific individuals.”


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Policies that Provide Guidance for Administrative Data

The Census Bureau has a number of policies providing guidance on privacy and record linkage.

  • Privacy Principles: sets ethical standards for the U.S. Census Bureau’s data collection, handling, and dissemination.
  • Record Linkage Policy: provides criteria to specify which projects are appropriate within the scope of Census Bureau’s legal authority and mission necessity, including best alternative, public good, sensitivity, openness, and consistent review and tracking.
  • Census Bureau Benefits for Projects: establishes criteria to identify and demonstrate how a project relates and supports a Census Bureau program, including a census, survey, or other statistical activity, such as the population estimates, census/survey frames, and models used to produce demographic and economic estimates.
  • Research Proposal Review Process: establishes the minimum requirements and criteria for the review of research project proposals.  Every research proposal must meet a business need of the Census Bureau, which includes how it aligns with the Census Bureau's strategic plan and portfolio management; be scientifically valid; and cannot put at risk the Census Bureau's mission and reputation.
  • Census Bureau’s FY13-17 Strategic Plan: Several strategic tactics are directly related to the use of administrative records, including the instruction to “integrate data from existing sources, including administrative records, to produce new information products that provide deeper insights into our people and economy by combining data sets that had not previously been linked.”  Other tactics support the research uses of “Big Data” and application of efficiencies to support the Census Bureau’s mission.

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When the Census Bureau Links Data...

All record linkages must support the Census Bureau’s programs such as a census, survey, or other statistical activity, including population estimates, census/survey frames, and models used to produce demographic and economic estimates.

When the Census Bureau is deciding whether to link data sets, the linkages must support the agency’s mission and several other criteria are evaluated:

  • Best Alternative – The Census Bureau will examine alternatives for meeting the project objectives and determine that record linkage is the best alternative given considerations of cost, respondent burden, timeliness, and data quality.
  • Public Good Determination – The Census Bureau will weigh the public benefits to be gained by the information resulting from the record linkage against any risks to individual privacy that may be created by the linkage and determine the benefits are balanced with the risks.  In addition, the Census Bureau will proactively implement procedures to mitigate any risks.
  • Sensitivity – The Census Bureau will assess the public perception of the level of risk to individual privacy of a particular linkage and create an appropriate level of review and tracking.

Finally, an important feature of record linkage and the use of administrative records is protecting the confidentiality of this data.  All personal and business information acquired by the Census Bureau and any resulting linkages are protected by law under Title 13 of the U.S. Code.

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