Tuesday, February 02, 2010

Census jobs: I may bite, but I must pay particular attention to usual confidentiality concerns and rules


Some time in the next several days or weeks, I may consider working for the 2010 Census. I want to set the record straight on some heightened concerns about strict Census confidentiality policies.

The Census Bureau, given its mission, has an unusual need to protect not only specific data items reported by individuals but also certain aggregate date in order to prevent any possibility that a hostile party could use aggregate date to identify individuals in unpopular groups. Because the data is used only in a statistical purpose for public policy, none of it can be made available to other government agencies, including law enforcement.

The Disclosure Avoidance Procedures are explained in the following web link. They may need several readings to be understood.

It’s also good to review the questions on the 2010 census, here to get a feel for how various kinds of demographic data could be summarized by computer programs. Additional “details” as intermediate values could be computed from the responses on each form, following well known concepts in “procedural programming” of computers (common in older languages like COBOL).

The September 13, 2009 entry on my GLBT blog explains, with a Washington Post reference, how Census will count same-sex couples. This will be a new responsibility for the 2010 Census.

However, Census would have to protect data carefully, with suppression techniques like those mentioned in the above reference, in communities reporting only a small number of same-sex couples, to preclude any possibility that hostile parties could try to misuse the information. Similar concerns could exist for many other groups.

The same-sex couple problem illustrates how there could develop a heightened concern over accidental employee disclosure away from the job, in comparison to many other jobs involving data, where there is nearly always an expectation or legal requirement for confidentiality.

The legal basis for Census confidentiality requirements resides in Sections 9 and 214 of Title 13, United States Code, link here.

Every employee takes an Oath of Non-Diisclosure (link here) which is legally effective for life. Criminal penalties can be assessed for violation, even after leaving employment. In many private corporate jobs, similar legal requirements to protect stakeholder confidentiality after leaving employment exist, but often only with civil penalties. The Census Privacy principles are here.

Since my blogs cover such a range of issues (due to my “connect the dots” philosophy), I would be concerned about possible prospective concerns from an employer about inadvertent disclosure, particularly of sensitive aggregate information, at an unspecified time in the future, using a “propensity” model of thinking (following a legal model ironically known from the military’s “don’t ask don’t tell” law).

However, I have always had to practice discretion in what I publish in my blogs, which, as I have discussed before, are unsupervised. There are always some ancillary personal situations that should not be disclosed, and there are always some specific matters related to previous employment that cannot be disclosed because of specific confidentiality agreements in the past. I have always honored these. Furthermore, I have been in situations before where someone could imagine scenarios where I might have a political motive to mine available data for some aggregate finding of potential use elsewhere. However, I have never used employer data for my own purposes.

In writing without third party due diligence to an “everyone” market, I would indeed have to practice care, and perhaps more care than ever before. For example, a comment that I believed there were X same-sex couples in some neighborhood of city Y could actually be a legal violation of confidentiality, even though the comment might seem to have political value. However, in principle there is no reason why it would be wrong to continue to blog (non-confidential and non-work-related) other subject matter off the job publicly while holding such a job. I see no direct problem with the Federal Statute (Title 13) or the lifetime oath. If I have direct reports, that could be another matter, and that may be covered in another post later.

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