Census Bureau chief defends new privacy tool against critics

Nov 27, 2022, 7:42 PM | Updated: Nov 28, 2022, 9:46 am
FILE - Then-Census Bureau Director nominee Robert Santos, testifies before the Senate Homeland Secu...

FILE - Then-Census Bureau Director nominee Robert Santos, testifies before the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs committee, July 15, 2021, on Capitol Hill in Washington. Santos is defending a new tool meant to protect the privacy of people who participate in the statistical agency's questionnaires against a call to abandon it by prominent researchers and demographers who claim it jeopardizes the usability of numbers that are the foundation of the nation’s data infrastructure. (AP Photo/Jacquelyn Martin, File)

(AP Photo/Jacquelyn Martin, File)

The U.S. Census Bureau’s chief is defending a new tool meant to protect the privacy of people participating in the statistical agency’s questionnaires against calls to abandon it by prominent researchers who claim it jeopardizes the usefulness of numbers that are the foundation of the nation’s data infrastructure.

The tool known as differential privacy “was selected as the best solution available” against efforts by outside groups or individuals to piece together the identities of participants in the bureau’s censuses and surveys by using third-party data and powerful computers, U.S. Census Bureau Director Robert Santos said in a letter last week. Concerns about privacy have grown in recent years as cyberattacks and threats of personal data being used for the wrong reasons have become more commonplace.

Several prominent state demographers and academic researchers had asked the statistical agency in August to abandon using differential privacy on future annual population estimates, which are used in the distribution of $1.5 trillion in federal funding each year, and future releases of American Community Survey data, which provide the most comprehensive information on how people live in the U.S.

The demographers and researchers said the application of the privacy method for the first time on 2020 census data had delayed their release and created inaccuracies in the numbers used to determine political power and distribute federal funds. The researchers said in their letter that there were thousands of small jurisdictions throughout the U.S. that won’t get usable data because of the algorithms applied to the numbers to protect confidentiality.

By continuing to use the differential privacy algorithms, “the Census Bureau risks failing its responsibilities as a federal statistical agency to provide relevant, accurate, timely, and credible information for the public good,” the researchers and demographers said. “In fact, the experience of the last few years has undermined user trust in the Census Bureau.”

Differential privacy algorithms add intentional errors to data to obscure the identity of any given participant and is most noticeable at the smallest geographies, such as census blocks. Data used for determining how many congressional seats each state gets and for redrawing political districts were released last year, but more detailed figures from the 2020 census won’t be made public until next year, almost three years after they were collected.

Some bias using the privacy tool “was inevitable from a purely mathematical perspective,” but bureau statisticians have worked to minimize it, and delays were caused by the pandemic, which pushed back a series of releases of the 2020 census data, Santos said.

Meanwhile, the bureau’s watchdog agency said in a report last week that the statistical agency had failed to stop simulated cyberattacks it had conducted as part of a covert operation to test the bureau’s cybersecurity vulnerabilities. The U.S. Department of Commerce’s Office of Inspector General said that its team had obtained unauthorized access to a domain administrator account, gotten personally identifiable information about bureau employees and used insecure programs to send out fake emails.

The Census Bureau said in a response to the report that the exercise had allowed it to improve its cyber defenses.

___

Follow Mike Schneider on Twitter at https://twitter.com/MikeSchneiderAP.

Copyright © The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

AP

FILE - The Starbucks logo is seen on a storefront, Friday, Oct. 14, 2022, in Boston Starbucks repor...
Associated Press

Starbucks misses sales, revenue estimates as China falters

Starbucks reported lower-than-expected sales in its fiscal first quarter, with COVID store shutdowns in China overshadowing stronger results elsewhere.
12 hours ago
The Amazon DTW1 fulfillment center is shown in Romulus, Mich., April 1, 2020. Amazon reports financ...
Associated Press

Amazon beats Q4 revenue estimates, but profits slump

Amazon on Thursday reported worse-than-expected profits, but its revenue beat expectations boosted by sales in North America businesses and the cloud-computing unit AWS.
12 hours ago
legislature...
Associated Press

Washington’s low-income tax credit available for first time

 Up to $1,200 is now available for thousands of low-income working Washington residents, thanks to a 2008 law that has finally been funded.
12 hours ago
Associated Press

Family of Minneapolis man killed in no-knock raid sues city

MINNEAPOLIS (AP) — The parents of Amir Locke, who was shot to death by a Minneapolis police officer when a SWAT team executed a no-knock search warrant one year ago, sued the city and the officer Friday, alleging he was “gunned down in cold blood” in violation of his constitutional rights. Locke, 22, who was […]
1 day ago
Associated Press

Skull found in ’97 in remote Alaska belongs to New York man

JUNEAU, Alaska (AP) — A skull found in a remote part of Alaska’s Interior in 1997 belongs to a New York man who likely died in a bear mauling, state authorities said. Investigators used genetic genealogy to help identify the remains as those of Gary Frank Sotherden, according to a statement Thursday from Alaska state […]
1 day ago
The image from video released on Jan. 27, 2023, by the City of Memphis, shows Tyre Nichols leaning ...
Associated Press

Licenses suspended for 2 fired EMTs in Tyre Nichols death

NASHVILLE, Tenn. (AP) — A Tennessee board on Friday suspended the emergency medical technician licenses of two former Memphis Fire Department employees for failing to render critical care to Tyre Nichols after he took a beating from police that ultimately killed him. The suspensions of EMT Robert Long and advanced EMT JaMichael Sandridge build on […]
1 day ago

Sponsored Articles

safety from crime...

As crime increases, our safety measures must too

It's easy to be accused of fearmongering regarding crime, but Seattle residents might have good reason to be concerned for their safety.
Comcast Ready for Business Fund...
Ilona Lohrey | President and CEO, GSBA

GSBA is closing the disparity gap with Ready for Business Fund

GSBA, Comcast, and other partners are working to address disparities in access to financial resources with the Ready for Business fund.
SHIBA WA...

Medicare open enrollment is here and SHIBA can help!

The SHIBA program – part of the Office of the Insurance Commissioner – is ready to help with your Medicare open enrollment decisions.
Lake Washington Windows...

Choosing Best Windows for Your Home

Lake Washington Windows and Doors is a local window dealer offering the exclusive Leak Armor installation.
Anacortes Christmas Tree...

Come one, come all! Food, Drink, and Coastal Christmas – Anacortes has it all!

Come celebrate Anacortes’ 11th annual Bier on the Pier! Bier on the Pier takes place on October 7th and 8th and features local ciders, food trucks and live music - not to mention the beautiful views of the Guemes Channel and backdrop of downtown Anacortes.
Swedish Cyberknife Treatment...

The revolutionary treatment of Swedish CyberKnife provides better quality of life for majority of patients

There are a wide variety of treatments options available for men with prostate cancer. One of the most technologically advanced treatment options in the Pacific Northwest is Stereotactic Body Radiation Therapy using the CyberKnife platform at Swedish Medical Center.
Census Bureau chief defends new privacy tool against critics