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Analysis

Strong Confidentiality Laws Protect All Data the Census Bureau Collects

Regardless of what the Census Bureau collects from Nebraska or any other state, the data is subject to ironclad confidentiality protections.

December 5, 2019
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In June, the Supreme Court blocked the Trump administration from adding a citizenship question to the 2020 census. Soon after, President Trump issued an executive order requiring the Census Bureau to use other means to collect citizenship information. In October, as part of that effort, the Census Bureau requested driver’s license records from the majority of the states.

The Census Bureau has no legal authority to mandate that states turn over any records, and most states have refused to assent to its request. Last month, however, Nebraska agreed to hand over its driver’s license records to the bureau, becoming the first state to comply.

Because driver’s license records frequently contain inaccuracies, it’s unclear whether the bureau will find Nebraska’s data usable. Either way, Nebraska residents may worry that their data is at risk of being misused or shared with other federal agencies. The law clearly prohibits that from happening. Indeed, regardless of what information the bureau gets from Nebraska or any other state, the public can be confident that the information will be subject to the same ironclad confidentiality laws that protect all other information collected by the bureau.

As we’ve previously explained, the Census Act prohibits the bureau from sharing any personally identifiable data or from using census data to harm a census respondent. That’s true whether the bureau gets the data from the decennial census, state agencies, or administrative records from other federal agencies. Indeed, the agreement between Nebraska and the Census Bureau acknowledges that any data Nebraska provides will be subject to the confidentiality protections of the Census Act as well as the federal Privacy Act.

These confidentiality protections exist so that everyone can feel safe responding to the census — something that’s especially important for communities of color and other groups most at risk of being undercounted. With Nebraska’s recent announcement, it’s more important than ever to spread the word that there are strong laws keeping census data private and preventing that data from being used to harm people.