Researchers push for access to confidential government records of the public

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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?


  • jburn

    I’ve always refused to participate in the census.

    As a side issue, there was a mandate in obamacare that medical records be made digital. You can guess where this is also leading.

  • mike shupp

    Businesses and social scientists have been rummaging through US census data for at least fifty years, since my college days, and probably for a whole lot longer. And it’s hard to see any real problems.

    Suppose you’re reading a history book that talks about income and literacy patterns in Baltimore and other colonial sites and compares them to London boroughs in the 1750’s. Surely the privacy of thousands of people has been abused! Does this cause you dismay? Or do you just shrug and absorb the data?

    Granted, it’s going to be irritating if corporations run all this data through sophisticated computer software and discover you’re the only owner of a purebred Airedale in your neighborhood and start besieging you with special Buy-This-NOW offers for Airedale owners in your mail and every other popup ad on your cell phone. But no human mind is going to be involved in this harassment. It won’t be malicious. It’ll be for YOUR benefit! And for your cute little dog, of course.

  • Edward

    mike shupp wrote: “Businesses and social scientists have been rummaging through US census data for at least fifty years … And it’s hard to see any real problems.”

    The article tells us what one of the real problems is: “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.”

    Thus, these supposedly anonymous but now-known participants can be victimized in a number of ways, from loss of jobs because of genetic predispositions, to loss of healthcare because their genetics show a shorter than average actuarial lifespan — and according to Obamacare, your expected lifespan is a determinant as to whether you receive expensive treatments.

    The reason that the U.S. Constitution explicitly protects our right to privacy is that privacy is important. When we hand over information about ourselves, it can — and will — be used against us and in favor of those who wish to dominate us. This was the very problem that the American colonists had with the Crown confiscating private papers and effects.

    We may have laws preventing discrimination based upon race, sex, and other factors, but we do not have anti-discrimination laws based upon access to data, private or publicly available.

    It does not much matter whether the government allows the data to be used; once it is collected, it is just as vulnerable as the data for government employees, which was hacked earlier this year. Or all it takes is one idiot who accidentally or purposefully exposes all the data.

  • danae

    Banks and other corporations are required by law to send annual privacy statements naming affiliates and outside entities with whom they share personal information they’ve gathered from customers. The lack of similar legislation governing access to personal data gathered by federal agencies is alarming. So much of what takes place inside the bureaucracy is opaque to congressional investigators, even more so to citizens who might unknowingly have grounds for lawsuits for civil rights violations.

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