Many Americans have  been asked to complete a survey for the Census Bureau.  The questions are detailed and invasive and leave most wondering who sees this information.  The Census Bureau assures you that “Your information is kept confidential“–it even says so on their website.  Except, listening to testimony below, panelists say  Census data, IRS data, even data on school children, is accessible “by hook or crook” and “you just have to know the steps to get there”.    As you read this, Congress is rushing through bills that identify barriers and expand access to data held in every agency.

In case you haven’t seen some of the Census questions asked, take a look at the Current Population Survey (CPS) questions  here:   pdf file   Front pdf file   Demographic Items   pdf file   Labor Force Items

See a few excerpts of Census Population Survey questions below:

  • Do you have a boyfriend, girlfriend or partner in this household? list names.
  • Names and birthdates of everyone living in the house, how they are related.
  • If related, how: biological, adopted, step, Opposite-sex Spouse (Husband/Wife), Opposite-sex Unmarried Partner, Same-sex Spouse (Husband/Wife),  Same-sex Unmarried Partner, Child, Grandchild, Parent (Mother/Father),Brother/Sister, Other relative (Aunt, Cousin, Nephew, Mother-in-law, etc.), Foster_Child,  Housemate/Roommate, Roomer/Boarder, Other nonrelative
  • RACE  Probe: Which group (do/does) (you/he/she) most closely identify with? 1 Mexican 2 Mexican American 3 Chicano 4 Puerto Rican 5 Cuban 6 Cuban-American 7 Other Spanish, Hispanic, or Latino group What is the name of (your/his/her) other Spanish, Hispanic, or Latino group?
    Do not probe unless response is Hispanic or a Hispanic origin Enter all that apply, separate with commas
  • INCOME Which category represents (your/name of reference person/the total combined income) (total combined income during the past 12 months?/ of all members of your FAMILY during the past 12 months?/ of all members of (name of reference person) ‘s FAMILY during the past 12 months?)
  • Do any of the new household members) have serious difficulty walking or climbing stairs? Who?
  • Does anyone/Do any of the new household members) have difficulty dressing or bathing
  • Because of a physical, mental, or emotional condition, (do you/does NAME/does anyone/do any of the new household members) have serious difficulty concentrating, remembering, or making decisions?

The Electronic Privacy Information Center  (EPIC) explains  how Census data can be linked to and re-identified:


Public use datasets contain ‘anonymous’ microdata, information on individual people and organizations where the explicit identifiers have been stripped away. Microdata can then be transferred even in blocks of just a few individuals. Under 13 USC § 9, the Census Bureau is required to make sure that the identities cannot be “reasonably deduced.” Concepts of “reasonable deduction,” however, are changing quickly.

Re-identification is the process of linking anonymous data to the actual identity of an individual. Carnegie Mellon Professor Latanya Sweeney has demonstrated that anonymous data sets can often be readily re-identified. In one experiment, Sweeney, using 1990 Census data, demonstrated that individuals often have demographic values that occur infrequently. Since these values occur infrequently, they allow the re-identification of individuals in putatively anonymous datasets. Sweeney found in her report Uniqueness of Simple Demographics in the U.S. Population:

…87% (216 million of 248 million) of the population in the United States had reported characteristics that likely made them unique based only on {5-digit ZIP, gender, date of birth}. About half of the U.S. population (132 million of 248 million or 53%) are likely to be uniquely identified by only {place, gender, date of birth}, where place is basically the city, town, or municipality in which the person resides. And even at the county level, {county, gender, date of birth} are likely to uniquely identify 18% of the U.S. population. In general, few characteristics are needed to uniquely identify a person.

Re-identification can also be enhanced through the use of commercially available or public records databases. Census data can be combined with other datasets in order to identify individuals. Some re-identification software is available commercially.

Re-identification is legal in the United States. However, some countries have attempted to address re-identification in a legal framework. Germany, for instance, recently proscribed census re-identification.”  -EPIC

If Census Data can be re-identified, what other data can also be identified and linked to?  

Listen to these panelists say they link Census data,  IRS data, and student data.

There is a set of companion bills currently in the US Congress, HR4174 and S2046, Foundations for Evidence-Based Policymaking Act of 2017, that aim to expand access to data.  These almost identical bills, one which has already passed the  House (H.R. 4174), one set to be heard in the Senate (S.2046), are the result of a year long government study called the CEP (Commission for Evidence-based Policy.  (Read more about the bills, and the CEP commission hearings here.)

Listen to a some of the researchers and panelists speak at the CEP Meetings/Hearings about how they can already access private IRS information, Census information, even school information in the SLDS, but they want it to be easier.

Panelists at Feb 9, 2017 CEP hearing (listen to Audio at 57 min to 1hr14min mark):

Panelists discuss making it easier to link personally identifiable information from IRS records and personal information from Census population survey, personal information from education records and SLDS.  With the CEP Commission making this  personal data more accessible, more available, the researcher feels “like a kid in candy store“.  There are great barriers that prevent researchers from getting this data, currently researchers have to get it by “hook or crook” or  “by leveraging personal relationships”… CEP questions the coercive nature of obtaining this data.  At 1hour11 minutes, they discuss how currently they  can link Census population survey data and  personal IRS data, with persistence any academic researcher can access these data,  you just have to know the steps to get there and I think that’s the Commission’s charge“…

The Feb 24, 2017 CEP meeting: (1hour 26min mark of video)

Again, panelists discuss how they are able to link personally identifiable student education records with IRS records, but cite it is difficult and barriers need to be removed to make it easier to link this personal data between agencies.

video link


Think about what access to this  data and the invasion of your personal information could mean. Identity Theft? Profiling?  The Census Bureau was very recently caught in a political mess over LGBT data.  What does this expanded access to data mean for undocumented students or families?  The IRS forms  contain not only employer/history, income, but also have your and your spouse’s SSN, your children’s SSNs, your home address and phone.  Information in SLDS contains student records from Kindergarten through 12th grade, including disability status, medical, income status, and think about the information from assessments like TS Gold and Kindergarten registration forms.

Are you comfortable with expanding access to data without your consent?  Or would you prefer that Congress enact laws to protect private citizen’s data, wish they would pass laws that prevent sharing your information without your consent?   Europe has the General Data Protection Rule, the strictest privacy law in the world. Why is Congress weakening  privacy? Could it be that Congress doesn’t care about the 4th amendment?  The ACLU says the 4th amendment should cover data.   Or could it be as a privacy expert  Daniel Solove says,  Congress doesn’t care about privacy?

Contact Congress. Ask them to vote NO on the Foundations for Evidence-Based Policymaking Act of 2017 (FEPA).


The Senate version of the bill (S2046) has been read twice and was referred to the Senate Committee on Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs.

Here is the list of the committee members along with their Twitter handles and office phone numbers.

Call and leave a simple message of vote no. Or tweet, let them know you don’t want information about private citizens shared at the national level, without consent.  NO S.2046   NO on the Foundations for Evidence-Based Policymaking Act of 2017 (FEPA). 


Cheri Kiesecker

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