Journal of Official Statistics, Vol.22, No.4, 2006. pp. 599–614

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Ethics, Confidentiality, and Data Dissemination

Statistical agencies, such as the U.S. Census Bureau, have an obligation to disseminate statistical information and to protect the data they collect. In 2004, a New York Times article regarding tabulations the U.S. Census Bureau provided to another agency, the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, drew comparisons to actions in the U.S. Census Bureau’s past and suggested the U.S. Census Bureau—by providing statistical data, which did not reveal any individual identities—had acted in bad faith, violating the trust under which it collected the census from individuals and households. This concern resulted in a review of our responsibilities, the commitments made to respondents, and U.S. Census Bureau policies. This article reflects the results of that review — and highlights historical aspects, as well as the contemporary provision of data to the Department of Homeland Security. Part I discusses the U.S. Census Bureau’s responsibilities and commitments to respondents, the meaning of statistical use, and what the public can expect of the U.S. Census Bureau or indeed any statistical agency. Part II draws a distinction between what can be expected of a statistical agency as an agency within the bureaucratic structure of the government and the responsibilities of individuals, whose moral responsibilities and choices transcend bureaucracies.

Common good, confidentiality, data dissemination, ethical challenges, statistical information

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