Personal Privacy and the Public Good: Balancing Data Privacy and Data Utility

Research Report

Personal Privacy and the Public Good: Balancing Data Privacy and Data Utility

August 25, 2021

Abstract

The Census Bureau greatly delayed the release of 2020 census data products because of the COVID-19 pandemic and related stay-at-home orders. The 2020 Census was also affected by natural disasters, new household dynamics, eviction freezes, displacement of college students, and national social upheaval. Further, the Census Bureau implemented for the first time a new privacy definition, called differential privacy, for their disclosure avoidance system (that is, its approach for protecting their publicly released data). Leaders from states, counties, cities, and towns rely on this data for school planning, budgeting, social program provision, and redistricting. They are questioning and scrutinizing the quality of the 2020 Census products because of the data equity challenges that have arisen from privacy protection methods, such as ones that use differential privacy, and the impact of enumeration during the pandemic. Data users must understand how important these issues are to have an informed engagement as the Census Bureau considers applying differential privacy to other key datasets, such as the American Community Survey.

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