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Turns Out Census Data Isn't That Safe

Internal Census Bureau team finds a vulnerability
By Newser Editors and Wire Services
Posted Feb 16, 2019 6:00 PM CST
This file photo shows an envelope containing a 2018 census letter mailed to a US resident as part of the nation's only test run of the 2020 Census.   (AP Photo/Michelle R. Smith, File)

(Newser) – An internal team at the Census Bureau found that basic personal information collected from more than 100 million Americans during the 2010 head count could be reconstructed from obscured data, but with lots of mistakes, a top agency official disclosed Saturday. The age, gender, location, race, and ethnicity for 138 million people were potentially vulnerable, the AP reports. So far, however, only internal hacking teams have discovered such details at possible risk, and no outside groups are known to have grabbed data intended to remain private for 72 years, chief scientist John Abowd told a scientific conference. The Census Bureau is now scrapping its old data shielding technique for a state-of-the-art method that Abowd claimed is far better than Google's or Apple's.

Some former agency chiefs fear the potential privacy problem will add to the worries that people will avoid answering or lie on the once-every-10-year survey because of the Trump administration's attempt to add a much-debated citizenship question. The eight billion pieces of statistics in census data are supposed to jumbled in a way so what is released publicly for research cannot identify individuals for more than seven decades. But in the internal tests, Abowd said, officials were able to match of 45% of the people who answered the 2010 census with information from public and commercial data sets such as Facebook. But errors in this technique meant that only data for 52 million people would be completely correct—little more than 1-in-6 of the US population. Click for the full story. (Or read about a huge set of Russian documents leaked online.)


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