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December 2017

Data Security and the Census

This is the sixth blog post in an in-depth series exploring the history and future of the US Census. Explore our first post introducing readers to the history of the census and its importance. If you’re interested in other subjects related to Census 2020, check out the list of all our blog posts about it at the end of this post.

For those of us who have read Orwell’s 1984, we may have some misgivings about government collection of our personal information. The US Census Bureau deals with this problem every time it conducts the Decennial Census, the official population count of the United States. While the census collects information on race, age, gender, and address, this data is fully protected and information is not shared between government agencies unless it is also publicly available. Given the personal nature of data collection, it is important to know when and how census information can be shared, what precautions the US Census Bureau is taking to keep your data safe, and current questions surrounding the federal use of census data.

Legal Barriers to Sharing Census Information

The US Census Bureau relies on public trust in order to make an accurate count of the US population every ten years. Efforts to modernize data collection and political concerns about data use may call into question the security of information given to census collectors and inputted through an online portal.  However, no matter the collection method, census data is protected under Title 13 U.S.C. § 9, which states that

“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… (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.”  

In other words, information that is provided to the Census Bureau cannot be used as the grounds for arrest, and violation of the confidentiality of a respondent is a federal crime with penalties including a prison sentence of up to five years and a fine of up to $250,000. The Census Bureau takes data privacy very seriously, and legally there is no jeopardy that can come to someone from filling out the census accurately. Title 13 even covers copies of the census form that are retained privately, meaning a copy of your census form cannot be used against you by law enforcement.

In addition to this, the Supreme Court ruled in 1982 that the Census Bureau does not have to share address lists through civil discovery or Freedom of Information Act requests. The Chief Justice, Warren E. Burger, said in the decision that the history of the census shows Congress has a strong intent to protect confidentiality by not sharing raw census data.

Data Security

One of the most foremost concerns in preparation for the next census is online data security. In 2013, the decision was made that the primary mode of collection for the 2020 Census would be through an internet portal. While the Census Bureau began using internet portals for the American Community Survey (ACS) in 2013, the 2020 Census will provide a much larger test than the 250,000 households that receive the ACS. Because the Census Bureau stores Personally Identifiable Information (PII) for every recorded citizen, it is possible that foreign entities or hackers will attempt to gain access to the internet-based data.

In the Executive Summary of the 2020 Census Operational Plan, the Census Bureau figured that a cyber security incident was moderately likely, and while the organization is contracting with third-party testers to perform threat and vulnerability analysis, a breach of census data would be the worst case scenario for data privacy. As such, the Census Bureau is working with the Department of Homeland Security to implement its security system, known as EINSTEIN. This program detects and blocks cyber-attacks, preventing them from compromising federal agencies.  EINSTEIN also provides real-time information about cyber-attacks against agencies to strengthen the protection systems in all government security systems. With these protection measures in place, a data breach is unlikely.

Federal Use of Census Data

Another potential risk to census privacy is the potential use of data about race and addresses to target raids of communities of color by the Department of Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE).  A draft Executive Order in January 2017 called for the use of questions to determine US citizenship and immigration status on the “long-form questionnaire in the Decennial Census” heightened fears related to political privacy.  However, the “long-form” census was discontinued in 2005 and replaced by the American Community Survey. As such, there has been no recent reporting about this draft Executive Summary.

Also adding to privacy concerns was the 2004 release of Zip Code level information about the number of Arab Americans in an area which was given to the Department of Homeland Security during the peak of the War on Terror.  However, as census information was also made publicly available, the Department of Homeland Security could have easily compiled the data on its own and no PII was shared. There are laws in place that protect the privacy of PII from release to other government agencies, though, and immigration status is not asked on the census form. Under current US law and precedents, the Census Bureau is not legally allowed to share your PII, and even with the recent change in the administration, it is unlikely that this will ever change.

In 1953, President Truman’s Secret Service team needed to vet residents of a neighborhood he was moving into during White House renovations.  The Secret Service requested information about the residents from the Census Bureau and were denied access.  Perhaps even more dramatic, in 1980, the FBI showed up at a Census Bureau field office with a search warrant authorizing the seizure of census documents.  The FBI was investigating a crime against the Census Bureau itself, an enumerator was accused of falsifying records. However, the census employees refused to break the confidentiality of the US Census and refused access.  The situation was resolved by their superiors.

Privacy’s Effect on Participation

Concerns about census confidentiality have a smaller effect on overall census participation than you may think, at least in recent censuses. Every census, a number of people don’t respond to the survey, or refrain from responding to certain demographic questions in an attempt to conceal their identity. Overall, the 2010 Census is reported to have over counted the population of the United States by about 36,000 people; most of this error, however, is due to duplications, and shadows the undercounting of those who live in multifamily units, those who live on reservations, African Americans, Hispanics, and renters (Census Bureau, 2012). Studies of the 2000 and 1990 censuses found that concerns over the confidentiality of census data, although more correlated with not returning census forms than general privacy concerns, were not that determinant in census response rates. Anecdotally, there is a growing concern that rising distrust in government may impact peoples’ willingness to respond to this census.  Low response rates may result in an undercount, which would have a detrimental effect on congressional apportionment and the disbursement of federal and state funds. It remains to be seen how large of an impact these factors will have on response rates in the 2020 Census.

Census 2020 Blog Posts

  1. What is the Census?
  2. U.S. Census Budget Introduction
  3. 2020 Census Budget Challenges
  4. 2020 Cost-Saving Innovations
  5. How Does the Census Use Local Administrative Data?
  6. Data Security and the Census
  7. Redistricting and the Census

InnovateGov Intern Spotlight –Where are they now?

In Summer of 2016, Data Driven Detroit (D3) entered a partnership with Michigan State University’s InnovateGov internship program. Through this program, MSU students get the opportunity for an immersive experience working at an organization in the city of Detroit. During the internship, they live on Wayne State University’s campus in the heart of Midtown Detroit. Their time is split between working with the organization at which they’re placed and participating in learning activities carefully curated by InnovateGov’s expert program administrators.

Introducing: Boitshoko Molefhi

During the summer of 2016, we had the pleasure of welcoming two students into D3’s first InnovateGov cohort. We wanted to take a moment to spotlight the awesome work they did with us last summer, provide an update on what they’re up to these days, and explain how their time at D3 helped to elevate their path and future endeavors.

First up is Boitshoko Molefhi (more commonly known around the office as “Bo”). During his time at D3, Bo was working toward a bachelor’s degree in Microbiology with a secondary bachelor’s degree in Public Policy.

Tell us a little bit about yourself.

I am from Botswana – a little known country in Southern Africa. For a better picture of where it is, it borders South Africa on its immediate north central area of its border. I have always had a passion for scientific work, particularly research, and studying microbiology to me seemed to be a great tool for learning the skills necessary to advance my country in the field of bio-sci and subsequently improving the state of public health. I also have a knack for policy framework design, so I wanted to couple my knowledge in microbiology with the skillset of policymaking so as to strengthen institutions that facilitate and maintain public health in Botswana. Ultimately, I want to work as consultant in crafting policies that govern drug testing, drug approval, and disease control.

What’s your favorite type of data to work with?

My favorite type of data to work with is qualitative data because it requires an extensive amount of description to preface it, and therefore allows one to make better decisions in understanding it. It is always contextualized, but brings the highest level of thinking out of people when it comes to defining the criterion with which the data is categorized. I enjoy such challenges!

What did you do when you interned at D3?

First of all, interning at D3 was a phenomenal experience! It really pushed me into the deep-end of critical thinking within policy because I got to do a lot of qualitative data analytics. The great thing about it was that I had asked for work in that area and D3 gave me the opportunity to do it. One of my main projects was designing a criterion that would assess the feasibility of partnerships with organizations. I designed it (to the best of my ability and with the help of some D3’s sharp minds) to be extensive but more importantly, to be a living document that would evolve as both the internal and external organizational landscapes shift. I also got to have a stab at 3D printing during some of the down-time at the office. In addition to these fun projects, I got to be part of the land parcel survey team that went into the city (around the Cody Rouge area) to map the state of the city! It was a good transition from office space life to just walking up and about in the community engaging with people.

What was your favorite project at D3?

My favorite project at D3 was the Biz Wiz project. It was long and extensive, but I enjoyed the challenge that came with it. I did monotonous research for business mapping and then the hard part, categorizing the various organizations as well as criterion design for partnering up with them. It was stressful but worth it, because I understood the need to allow my methodical side to work in synergy with my creative side so we can have the best possible frameworks to benefit D3.

What was your favorite thing you did in Detroit during your time in the city?

Playing with the 3D printer! I really was fascinated by the whole process of how it worked and Erica was super awesome in teaching me a few things about how to make it work. Surprise 3D printed business card holders were the icing on the cake for the internship. My most favorite thing was the team get together. Just getting to hang out with everyone and to not talk about gentrification or parcel mapping was great! Getting to know people a bit more was great (plus it set me up for my first post-collegiate job).

Where are you working now?

I am currently working in Detroit for a radio station as a summer program director for the communications and broadcasting training program. Prior to this, I worked for Avalon Medical Laboratory on the Caribbean islands of St. Kitts and Nevis.

Tell us a little bit about your role there.

In my position at Avalon Medical Laboratory, I served as a medical technologist as well as a policy developer. The job synergized my two college degrees into the focused task of creating a policy framework system for the lab that would situate them for accreditation by the International Organization of Standardization.

At my current job, I worked to manage the progress of the training program to make sure that all the goals for the summer were met, and designed a framework that would be able to measure the achievement of said goals. In addition to the this, my current task at hand is developing a comprehensive curriculum for the training program.

How did you come across your current position?

Circling back to the D3 team get together, Erica asked me what I was studying at MSU and I proceeded to tell her, as well as the reasons why I was studying said disciplines. In an excited voice, she shared that her mom ran a laboratory in the Caribbean and she had been talking about needing help. Long story short, Erica connected us and I had my job interview in October and was offered the job on the spot! So, I didn’t see the need to look elsewhere, and just prepared myself for a new adventure in a completely new place. Many thanks to D3 and all the people who agreed to have a get-together.

As for my position with the radio station, I am one of its co-founders. While I was out in the Caribbean, GDYT (Growing Detroit’s Young Talent) approached us to see if we wanted to be a site for the summer program for youth employment. The leadership team at Be-Moor Radio agreed it was a good move to make, and so once it was all settled I headed state-side to administrate the summer program.

How did your time at D3 equip/prepare you for this position?

D3 helped me in so many invaluable ways. D3 harnessed and sharpened my ability to consolidate my skills to work in synergy with one another. I was given the chance to set my goals for summer and I raised the bar high for myself, and D3 provided all the necessary support to accomplish my goals. I grew in confidence working at D3 because I was treated like a full-time employee and not just an intern, being entrusted with major organizational projects from the onset. As I have gone into my various positions after D3, I have become cooler under pressure and delivered quality work in a timely manner. I am supportive of my coworkers and assist them in achieving their goals in and out of work, because a culture of community is a personal value – one cultivated and continually nurtured by D3 and the people, places and spaces D3 brought me contact with.