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The U.S. Census Bureau's Commitment to Confidentiality

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The decision by U.S. Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross to add a question on citizenship status to the 2020 Census has generated a lot of discussion in the media and on Capitol Hill. Some of this discussion expresses concerns about how the Census Bureau would use this information and with whom it would be shared. I welcome this opportunity to highlight the Census Bureau’s absolute commitment to confidentiality.

This commitment begins in law. The Census Law, Title 13 of the U.S. Code, is straightforward and has strong protection. Title 13 requires that responses to Census Bureau surveys and censuses be kept confidential and used for statistical purposes only. The Census Bureau publishes only aggregated statistics that do not reveal information about particular individuals, households or businesses. All staff working with confidential information at the Census Bureau take a lifetime oath to protect the privacy and confidentiality of respondent information. Unlawful disclosure is a federal crime punishable by a $250,000 fine or five years in prison, or both.

At the Census Bureau, we know that our commitment must go beyond the law. We understand that our success depends on the willing participation of households and business who respond to our many censuses and surveys, and on the many federal, state and local government agencies and private sector organizations that provide administrative data. Their willing participation is founded on trust. When we ask a person or a business to respond, we make a commitment to do everything we can to protect their information. Likewise, when we ask another government agency to share their data with us, we protect their information just as we protect the information we collect in our censuses and surveys.

We use these critical data sources to produce a variety of data products like state population estimates, monthly retail sales, income and poverty statistics, and the merchandise trade balance. Our staff receives annual training to keep them abreast of current data and IT security procedures — a measure consistent with the strong culture of confidentiality stressed at all levels of the Census Bureau. We strive to use technology and statistical methodologies to ensure that we can protect data at all stages — from collection, through processing, and to dissemination.

I know that one important concern is how the census data will be used and there is often a question of whether the Census Bureau shares information with law enforcement agencies like the FBI, ICE or even the local police. I assure you that this does not happen and it is prohibited by Title 13. Title 13 makes it very clear that the data we collect can only be used for statistical purposes and cannot be shared for nonstatistical purposes — including law enforcement. The Census Bureau is proud of this law and we are committed to ensuring that the data we collect are always protected. We do not share confidential micro data (i.e., data at the individual, household or business level) with any party for nonstatistical purposes.  

We are committed to working with our stakeholders and partners to produce useful statistics that can inform both public and private decision-making. Part of this commitment means working to ensure that the statistical products we release do not identify individuals and businesses. The Census Bureau is at the forefront of researching and developing best practices for the protection of our data — including how to best apply disclosure avoidance procedures to data products.

Furthermore, our collaboration with leading experts in industry and academia helps to ensure we uphold our pledge to American households and businesses to safeguard the information they’ve entrusted to us. We continually strive to produce the most useful data possible while keeping our commitment to confidentiality. This commitment has served both the U.S. Census Bureau and the American people well, and we will continue to protect the information we collect so our communities and businesses can plan and make decisions effectively and confidently.

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Page Last Revised - September 15, 2022
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