Defending the Confidentiality of Census Data

A coalition of data users urged the Secretary of Commerce to uphold the confidentiality protections for Census data.

In a December 12 letter, the Population Association of America and seven other groups expressed their alarm at revelations that the Department of Justice considered sidestepping essential confidentiality protections for Census survey data.

The reason for concern was “internal Department of Justice (DoJ) documents recently released as part of the New York vs. Department of Commerce case show that senior DOJ officials refused, in response to a question from Congress earlier this year, to confirm a 2010 Office of Legal Counsel ruling that no provisions of the USA Patriot Act supersede Census Act (Title 13 U.S.C.) data confidentiality protections, even for law enforcement or national security purposes. This development alarms our organizations.”

The protection of “census data confidentiality is essential to maintaining the integrity of all census surveys,” the letter continued. “Since the end of World War II, Republican and Democratic Administrations alike have embraced Census Act confidentiality provisions. Any suggestions that the Administration is even considering a reinterpretation of existing law could undermine public trust in the federal government’s ability to secure personal data. As a result, we believe response rates to surveys, particularly the decennial census, will plummet, generating inaccurate and incomplete essential demographic and socioeconomic data about our nation.”

The Population Association of America, American Statistical Association, Consortium of Social Science Associations, Association of Public Data Users, Association of Population Centers, Council of Professional Associations on Federal Statistics, and the Insights Association, urged Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross to “reaffirm” his “support for upholding strict confidentiality protections in Title 13 and to reassure the public that census data will be not misused or shared inappropriately with any federal agency. We believe such a public statement of support will help restore the public’s faith and improve chances of achieving an inclusive, successful 2020 Census.”

Sen. Cory Booker (D-NJ) recently led a comparable letter to Secretary Ross and Sen. Brian Schatz (D-HI) a similar effort sent to the Department of Justice.