In looking for 2020 census updates online, I ran across this article – How Your Privacy Will Be Protected in the 2020 Census – Fortune: http://fortune.com/2019/05/25/census-security-privacy/.
Every ten years the U.S. Census Bureau conducts a nationwide survey that sets the terms for the country’s democracy. The questionnaire yields rich data, including people’s names, street addresses, ages, races, ethnicities, and other details. People’s responses help determine dynamics of power, such as how seats are apportioned in the House of Representatives, where voting districts get divided, and which communities receive federal funds.
But the bureau, tasked with releasing summaries of the results while simultaneously protecting people’s privacy, faces a Catch-22. “Every time you publish a statistic you leak information about that confidential database,” as Simson Garfinkel, a computer scientist with the bureau, told a Census advisory committee in May.
If people believe their responses will not be kept private and secured, they may opt not to respond. And with the proposed addition of a sensitive question to the 2020 Census—asking whether a respondent is an American citizen—heeding the privacy mandate becomes paramount.
It’s a tradeoff between precision and privacy. While some social science researchers grouse that the new approach will impede their work, the backlash could have been far worse, says Erica Groshen, former commissioner of the Bureau of Labor Statistics. If the bureau hadn’t changed anything, “who knows how the House and Senate would have reacted to widespread reports of the privacy and confidentiality of people’s responses not being protected?” she says.
“Rather than having it go the legislative route, the Census has decided to go the scientific route,” Groshen says.
This article originally appeared in the June 2019 issue of Fortune.