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What could possibly go wrong? Researchers in a number of fields want access to the vast amount of private government data that is routinely gathered from the public.
In the past few years, administrative data have been used to investigate issues ranging from the side effects of vaccines2 to the lasting impact of a child’s neighbourhood on his or her ability to earn and prosper as an adult3. Proponents say that these rich information sources could greatly improve how governments measure the effectiveness of social programmes such as providing stipends to help families move to more resource-rich neighbourhoods.
But there is also concern that the rush to use these data could pose new threats to citizens’ privacy. “The types of protections that we’re used to thinking about have been based on the twin pillars of anonymity and informed consent, and neither of those hold in this new world,” says Julia Lane, an economist at New York University. In 2013, for instance, researchers showed that they could uncover the identities of supposedly anonymous participants in a genetic study simply by cross-referencing their data with publicly available genealogical information.
Read it all. It is terrifying to me how governments worldwide increasingly consider this private data their property to use as they wish. For example:
In the United States, the Census Bureau has been expanding its network of Research Data Centers, which currently includes 19 sites around the country at which researchers with the appropriate permissions can access confidential data from the bureau itself, as well as from other agencies. “We’re trying to explore all the available ways that we can expand access to these rich data sets,” says Ron Jarmin, the bureau’s assistant director for research and methodology.
I ask: What business is it of the Census Bureau to do this? The information they gather was originally intended solely to determine Congressional districts. Moreover, who gave them the right to release the confidential data to anyone? Have they asked anyone for this permission?