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This Is How the Federal Government Can – and Can’t – Use Census Information

The threat of an added citizenship question has generated concern about how information provided to the government could be used against vulnerable communities.

February 20, 2019

As prepar­a­tions for the 2020 Census get under­way, the threat of an added citizen­ship ques­tion has gener­ated concern about how inform­a­tion provided to the govern­ment could be used against vulner­able communit­ies. The Supreme Court is set to hear oral argu­ments April 23 on the Trump admin­is­tra­tion’s decision to ask about citizen­ship status, but in the mean­time, the Bren­nan Center has sorted through federal law and policies to figure out the limits to the federal govern­ment’s abil­ity to use the inform­a­tion in census answers.

Kelly Percival, coun­sel in the Bren­nan Center’s redis­trict­ing program, has researched the confid­en­ti­al­ity rules and answered a few ques­tions about the secur­ity of census inform­a­tion.

Why is the census so import­ant?

The census informs almost every aspect of our daily lives. For starters, census numbers are used for fund­ing social services. We’re talk­ing about things like schools, health­care, and roads. There are prob­lems that arise when a community goes under­coun­ted. For example, when Congress and the states are decid­ing whether to give money to a community, they could say, “Oh, we don’t need to build another school there,” because the school­chil­dren in that community are under­coun­ted. It’s the same with infra­struc­ture. They might think, “Well, maybe we don’t need to replace the bridge there.” But they would be under­es­tim­at­ing how many people use that bridge every day.

Census numbers are also used to appor­tion our polit­ical repres­ent­at­ives. If you go under­coun­ted, you could lose polit­ical repres­ent­a­tion in your state legis­lature and in Congress.

Many people are reluct­ant to fill out the census form. Is it optional?

No, it’s not optional. The Consti­tu­tion requires that every person in the coun­try be coun­ted. Congress must conduct a census every 10 years. By law, you as an indi­vidual are required to fill out the census form. It’s required because the census is so import­ant. Prevent­ing an under­count to the maximum extent possible ensures that the census most accur­ately reflects the makeup of the coun­try.

It’s also true that some people are trying to under­mine the census and are actively hoping that some communit­ies will go under­coun­ted. They don’t want certain communit­ies to get public fund­ing or to be repres­en­ted polit­ic­ally. Not filling out the census would be play­ing into their hands.

Can inform­a­tion from the census be used by law enforce­ment agen­cies to track down undoc­u­mented immig­rants or those suspec­ted of some crime?

No, that’s illegal under numer­ous federal laws. The federal Census Act, for example, is crys­tal clear that the Census Bureau can’t disclose your indi­vidual census responses and that the govern­ment can’t use census data for any reason that’s not purely stat­ist­ical. Law enforce­ment would not be a stat­ist­ical purpose. The easi­est way to think about it is that your census responses can’t be used to harm you.

We recog­nize that some people have seri­ous concerns about confid­en­ti­al­ity and how their data might be used when they fill out the census. To those people, I would say that there are many laws that protect the confid­en­ti­al­ity of your data, and any attempts to viol­ate them would trig­ger a fierce legal fight.

The Census Bureau is prohib­ited by law from releas­ing any personal inform­a­tion about respond­ents, even to other govern­ment agen­cies. But the law allows it to release inform­a­tion “in the aggreg­ate.” How does that work?

Indi­vidual data or personal responses (for example, the names of the people who live at 123 Smith Street), can never leave the four walls of the Census Bureau. That’s some­thing the law is very clear about — the Bureau cannot release this inform­a­tion no matter what, for any purpose or any reason.

That’s distinct from aggreg­ate stat­ist­ical data, such as the number of people under age 18 who live in a county. The bureau can produce these sorts of general stat­ist­ics, and they are used for a vari­ety of legit­im­ate purposes. For example, the Depart­ment of Educa­tion might use them for identi­fy­ing dispar­it­ies in learn­ing oppor­tun­it­ies for differ­ent racial and ethnic groups.

This is the first time the census will be conduc­ted largely online. Does that pose any new confid­en­ti­al­ity risks?

The same confid­en­ti­al­ity laws apply, and they protect data that’s provided online the same way they would protect data that you report in person, over the tele­phone, or through the mail. There are other concerns about the online census related to cyber­se­cur­ity (such as how the govern­ment prevents bad actors from hack­ing your data), as well as the digital divide (such as unequal access to the Inter­net). But those concerns have noth­ing to do with confid­en­ti­al­ity.

(Image: black­wa­ter­im­ages/CSA/Getty/BCJ)