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A Little Known Special Day

Thu Jan 26 2012
Robert Groves
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January 28 is National Data Privacy Day.  It’s not a big deal to most folks, but it is a time for those of us at the Census Bureau to reflect on our role in the US society.

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We at the Census Bureau collect answers to questions from people throughout the country, cumulate those answers, and provide freely to our society statistical summaries about important social and economic phenomena.  “Privacy” is a key concept to this work.

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“Privacy,” in a discussion by Warren and Brandeis in 1890, was defined as the “right to be left alone.”  More recent definitions have added thoughts like the right to control the use of information about yourself.

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By the very nature of what the Census Bureau does, we enter very briefly into people’s daily lives.  We do this to ask them questions that fulfill common good purposes – the percentage of persons currently suffering from some health condition; the average time it takes people to get to work each day; the median income of the adult population.  The intrusions are relatively short, limited to questions that must meet the criterion of national need.

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For most all of our household surveys (two exceptions are the decennial census and the American Community Survey), participation of a respondent is based on his/her voluntary consent to do the interview or fill out a questionnaire.  Before consent is sought, we describe the purpose of the survey and explain that statistical information will be produced when we assemble all the answers we get.  This is the notion of “informed consent” that is the basis of voluntary surveys.

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Part of the informed consent process details our pledge that the answers the respondent gives us are never revealed to anyone who is not part of cumulating them to produce statistical information.  That means that data that identify individuals are not released in any public reports.

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That “pledge of confidentiality” is, for some people, a key factor in their deciding to give up a little of their privacy to give us their answers – they can contribute to the common good without fearing that they’d be personally harmed in some way by abuse of their answers.

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Another way that the Census Bureau tries to maximize privacy is to use data that have already been provided by the public.  Congress, in the law governing the Census Bureau, has directed us to “the maximum extent possible” use records and information gathered by other government agencies, instead of asking the same questions of people yet again.  Implementing this fully would achieve that goal that the American public would never be asked to provide the same information twice by a government agency.  This would be a real advance on privacy.

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We at the Census Bureau know that privacy, informed consent, and confidentiality are the three touchstones of our ethical code in meeting our mission to produce useful statistics for our country.  We’re out of business without peoples’ trust that their answers are safe with us and that our sole purpose is combining their answers into summaries to provide our entire society with useful information about itself.

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So National Data Privacy Day, to us, represents a reminder of that important fact.

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