Scientific Integrity and Privacy at Risk in Census

November 29, 2018 | 2:34 pm
Photo: Quinn Dombrowski/Flickr
Michael Latner
Senior Voting Rights Fellow

When the Framers of the U.S. Constitution determined that political power should be allocated proportionally based on population and race (as opposed to wealth, heredity, or religion), they needed a scientific means of measuring population. That is the primary reason that we have the Decennial Census, so that population traits can be identified geographically. Since then, the Census has become the largest scientific endeavor that the nation undertakes on a regular basis. In recent days, however, testimony in several court cases challenging the current Administration’s attempt to politicize the Census has revealed an alarming threat to its scientific integrity, and by extension, countless political and economic functions that rely on the Census.

As a scientist, I understand that a central component of any behavioral research is the protection of human subjects. We are continually trained, and training young researchers, in the ethics of human subjects protections, and in the case of the Census, we are all human subjects. Institutional review boards and human subjects protocols across the behavioral sciences have been developed to ensure ethical practices among researchers and confidentiality of personal information for participants. The greatest risk of participation in social research is that information about identifiable persons will not be held in confidence by researchers after data is collected, information which could harm the reputation, social status, or even legal standing of participants.

So you can imagine my anger when I saw recent court documents revealing that under Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross, scientific expertise at the Census Bureau is being ignored and the quality of Census data, including the confidentiality of information, is under threat unless protected by the courts. This is not how democracies are supposed to work.

In deposition this week for a lawsuit brought by New York and 16 other states, former assistant attorney general John Gore acknowledged that Ross (and not AG Jeff Sessions, as previously claimed by Ross) initiated a request to add a citizenship question to the 2020 Census, even though the Census Bureau’s lead scientist John Abowd had explained in a memo that adding a citizenship question would cost the agency millions while actually decreasing the accuracy of the decennial count. The Bureau’s own research showed that the addition of the question could depress non-citizen response from 5-12%, probably a conservative estimate, given the current political climate and the administration’s public hostility toward migrants at the border.

More alarmingly, in another case in the U.S. District Court in Northern California, a recently released email from former Justice Department attorney Ben Aguiñaga suggested that the Trump administration discussed the possibility that federal law protecting the confidentiality of responses to the U.S. census may eventually be reconsidered, and that Census information could be shared with other government entities, such as the Department of Homeland Security.

Handing confidential information on residents over to security agencies is a violation of our most basic rights of privacy, and it has happened before: during World War II, confidential information from individuals was used to identify Japanese Americans in Washington D.C., and aggregate data was used for Japanese internment practices. Publicly available data was also used by the Department of Homeland Security to identify Arab American communities in 2004, but the confidentiality of individual data was apparently protected.

Census data is used to identify population traits down to the neighborhood level, as in this migration map.

Aguiñaga, who was serving as Gore’s chief of staff at the time, suggested in an email that sharing individuals’ census information with law enforcement and national security officers may “come up later for renewed debate.” When Gore was asked by ACLU attorney Dan Ho if it was his understanding that “this administration will not reconsider the view that the Patriot Act does not compel disclosure of otherwise confidential census information?” Gore did not answer, having been instructed by another attorney that he avoid disclosing “information subject to deliberative process privilege.”

In response, current CEO of The Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights and former acting head of the DOJ’s Civil Rights Division Vanita Gupta cleared up any ambiguity over the law: “There is no debate about whether to keep census information protected — census confidentiality is protected by law.” A vocal consensus in the scientific and legal community echoes Gupta’s conclusion that this administration’s failure to protect the scientific integrity of our data “is cause for great alarm.” In the words of New York plaintiffs’ attorney Matthew Colangelo, damaging the integrity of the Census and violating the confidentiality of the American people would “permanently impair core elements of our constitutional democracy.”

About the author

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Michael Latner is a Senior Fellow with the Center for Science and Democracy at the Union of Concerned Scientists. His research focuses on political representation and electoral systems, including redistricting and gerrymandering in the US, and the impact of electoral administrative law on political participation.