My Two Census

Formerly the non-partisan watchdog of the 2010 US Census, and currently an opinion blog that covers all things political, media, foreign policy, globalization, and culture…but sometimes returning to its census/demographics roots.

Note to America: Your 2010 Census data is being handed over to private citizens

The Census Bureau has long touted that it keeps data private and confidential for 70 years after it is gathered. This concept proved to be false as recently as 2004, when the Census Bureau didn’t put up a fight as it turned over information about Arab-Americans to other government agencies.

The Census Bureau also readily hands over data to research centers at universities, both public and private. This is a little-known program that has not been mentioned in the press. While I may personally agree that universities with data access can provide benefits for society, I stand against the Census Bureau handing over this data on the principle that  the American people have not agreed that the Census Bureau can use their data in this way.

Take a look at this recent Census Bureau press release that highlights the 10+ sites around the country where universities have access to your data:

The Center for Economic Studies at the U.S. Census Bureau, in
partnership with the University of Minnesota, has opened a new Research
Data Center (RDC) laboratory on the university’s campus in Minneapolis.

RDCs are Census Bureau facilities where researchers from academia,
federal agencies and other institutions with approved projects receive
restricted access to unpublished Census Bureau demographic and economic
microdata files. These secure facilities are staffed by Census Bureau
employees and meet stringent physical and computer security requirements
for access to confidential data.

“The Minnesota Research Data Center will serve researchers from a broad
range of academic disciplines, with particular strengths in demography and
public health,” said Census Bureau Director Robert Groves. “The Minnesota
RDC will contribute not only by providing researchers with assistance in
using the demographic, business and health data but also by developing
improved or new data collections.”

“The research lab is housed in the Minnesota Population Center (MPC),
which has a tradition of collaboration with the Census Bureau and other
statistical agencies. As a world leader in the improvement, dissemination
and analysis of census data, MPC is equipped to make unique contributions
to the RDC program,” Groves said.

Before gaining access to the information at RDCs, researchers must
submit proposals to the RDC and the Census Bureau for approval. The review
process ensures that proposed research is feasible, has scientific merit
and benefits Census Bureau programs. In addition, RDC operating procedures,
strict security and strong legal safeguards assure the confidentiality of
these data as required by law. Researchers, for instance, must pass a full
background investigation and are sworn for life to protect the
confidentiality of the data they access, with violations subject to
significant financial and legal penalties.

The Minnesota Census Research Data Center joins similar centers that
have been established in Boston; Berkeley, Calif.; Los Angeles; Washington;
Chicago; Ann Arbor, Mich.; New York; Ithaca, N.Y.; and Durham, N.C. The
center at Berkeley has a branch at Stanford University in Palo Alto,
Calif., while the center at Durham has recently opened a branch at Research
Triangle Park, N.C. An additional center is scheduled to open at a site in
Atlanta in spring 2011.

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8 Responses to “Note to America: Your 2010 Census data is being handed over to private citizens”

  1. Steve Jost Says:

    Your post is absolutely false. We do not “hand over data” and our Research Data Centers have frequently been mentioned in the press. It is not the Universities that have access to this data, rather individual researchers who have been sworn to keep the data confidential under penalty of law.

    We have disclosed the practice of collaborating with researchers with special sworn Title 13 status ever since the first Research Data Center was opened in 1994. (For example this FAQ response on our website pasted below). We consistently have told the public in press releases, on our website, and in response to press and public inquiries that the only people with access to their personal information are those sworn to uphold Title 13 and subject to a 5 year jail sentence and/or a $250,000 fine for breaking that oath. That is the case with our researchers, who access Census files only at our data centers, which are managed by career Census employees, and none of the data can be removed from the RDC. As you know we have just added two new RDC’s at Duke and the University of Minnesota and the Director attended both openings at highly publicized events.

    What are Research Data Centers (RDCs) and how many are there?

    Research Data Centers (RDCs) are secure Census Bureau facilities located at partner institutions where a researcher with Special Sworn Status (SSS) can access a limited amount of confidential Census Bureau data needed for a specific, approved project.  These centers are located in:
    Ann Arbor, MI (University of Michigan),
    Berkeley, CA (University of California at Berkeley),
    Cambridge, MA (National Bureau of Economic Research),
    Chicago, IL (Federal Reserve Bank of Chicago),
    Durham, NC (Duke University),
    Ithaca, NY (Cornell University),
    Los Angeles, CA (University of California at Los Angeles)
    Minneapolis, MN (University of Minnesota),
    New York City, NY (Baruch School of Public Affairs),
    Stanford, CA (Stanford Unversity), and
    Suitland, MD (Center for Economic Studies, U.S. Census Bureau)
    What is Special Sworn Status? 
    The Census Bureau gives Special Sworn Status to individuals to conduct work that specifically benefits a Census Bureau program. Title 13 of the U.S. Code permits these activities under section 23 (c), moreover these individuals are sworn to protect the data as Census Bureau employees are sworn, and they are subject to the same legal obligations and penalties. 
    How does an individual or organization apply to conduct research at an RDC?
    Researchers apply via the Center for Economic Studies web site.
    Who determines whether a researcher is eligible to do work at an RDC?
    All proposals to carry out research at an RDC must be approved by the Census Bureau.  If data are provided by other agencies (e.g., the Social Security Administration), the other agencies must approve of the project as well.

  2. anon Says:

    Trying once again to distort the truth, eh?

    “I stand against the Census Bureau handing over this data on the principle that the American people have not agreed that the Census Bureau can use their data in this way.”

    Your argument is invalid. The American people elected the representatives who wrote the Code. You might want to look into that.

    Here is some more really easy googling for you to chew on:
    “RDC’s enable external researchers to access micro-data under strict security protocols. All researchers must become Special Sworn Status employees of the Census Bureau (which involves fingerprinting, an FBI check, and an oath to protect the confidentiality of respondents – which, if broken, subjects the researcher to the penalty of a $250,000 fine and/or 5 years in jail). The researcher must document which files will be accessed, which variables used, and for which period of time. The researcher must also demonstrate that the predominant purpose of the research is to improve Census Bureau censuses, surveys and inter-censal population estimates, and provide a post-project certification that this has been achieved.”

    Protection of Confidential Information can be found in sections 9 and 214 of Title 13.

    Sec. 9. Information as confidential; exception (a) 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, except as provided in section 8 or 16 or chapter 10 of this title or section 210 of the Departments of Commerce, Justice, and State, the Judiciary, and Related Agencies Appropriations Act, 1998.(1)

    (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.

    (b) The provisions of subsection (a) of this section relating to the confidential treatment of data for particular individuals and establishments, shall not apply to the censuses of governments provided for by subchapter III of chapter 5 of this title, nor to interim current data provided for by subchapter IV of chapter 5 of this title as to the subjects covered by censuses of governments, with respect to any information obtained therefor that is compiled from, or customarily provided in, public records.

    Sec. 214. Wrongful disclosure of information
    Whoever, being or having been an employee or staff member referred to in subchapter II of chapter 1 of this title, having taken and subscribed the oath of office, or having sworn to observe the limitations imposed by section 9 of this title, or whoever, being or having been a census liaison within the meaning of section 16(2) of this title, publishes or communicates any information, the disclosure of which is prohibited under the provisions of section 9 of this title, and which comes into his possession by reason of his being employed (or otherwise providing services) under the provisions of this title, shall be fined not more than $5,000 or imprisoned not more than 5 years, or both.

    1. The Census Address List Improvement Act of 1994, P.L. 103-430 amends section 9(a) by inserting “or local government census liaison” and adding references to section 16. P.L. 105-119, the Departments of Commerce, Justice, and State, the Judiciary, and Related Agencies Appropriations Act, 1998, adds the reference to section 210.

    2. The Census Address List Improvement Act of 1994 (P.L. 103-430) amends section 214 making references to section 16 and “census liaisons.”

  3. P for Pres Says:

    It’s Obama’s fault

  4. Maiasaura Says:

    Still, Mr. Jost, the thought of hundreds of college students with access to my personal information gives me the heebie-jeebies. Swearing them into double-secret patriotic protection level doesn’t ease my mind a bit. Worst of all, I realize that when I was an enumerator, I lied to hundreds of people when I assured them that NO ONE would have access to their information.

  5. WT Says:

    If names are excluded from the data, I don’t care. If names are included, I do care.

  6. Patrick Says:

    @ Maiasaura:

    If you told them that NO ONE would have access to their information, you lied. It wasn’t that no one would have access to it.

    It was that no one who hadn’t taken the appropriate oath would have access to it. Census data was always going to be used for research by approved personnel for the 72 years or whatever until it becomes available to the general public, and if you thought differently, I think you must have blipped out during that part of training. How do you think the Census Bureau comes up with those great statistics and all that helpful information that sites like have? People have access to it and use it. The crucial thing is that they’re sworn to secrecy, and so are these new researchers, until such time as the information is open to the general public.

  7. DVR Says:

    Do you want to know how hard it is to get access to the RDC? First, you have to submit a 2 page proposal describing the basics of your research. If that is accepted by the Center for Economic Studies at the Census Bureau, you are allowed to submit a 10-15 page proposal describing exactly why you need access to the confidential data, how your project benefit the Census Bureau, and what you want disclosed from your analysis (regression coefficients, parameter estimates). After that is accepted (and it’s iterative), you obtain sworn status. Then, you can access the RDC – you only get access to the data requested (e.g., 1990 decennial STF1, 2000 decennial SF3).

    @Maiasaura trust me when I say that hundreds of college students DO NOT have access to the RDC. It is mostly faculty and some graduate students who use the RDC.

    This post is another example of Mr. Morse not doing his homework on RDCs and what they actually entail.

  8. Dr Data Says:

    Steven Robert Morse,
    This website is pretty pathetic. So, you are just finding out about the RDCs. They’ve been in existence long enough that the Canadian government has copied this model and makes their data available to researchers who become sworn census employees.

    The researchers are doing work on something that is useful to the Census Bureau and usually has a benefit to the user or scientific community. The research has to be approved by the Census Bureau; the results go through disclosure review before being published; the researchers operate under the same penalty for mis-use as Census Bureau employees.

    Sensationalist tripe.