ADVERTISEMENT

Census Bureau dodges challenge to controversial privacy tool

June 30, 2021 GMT
FILE- In this file image from video provided by the U.S. Census Bureau, a sign language interpreter, lower left, signs for acting director of the U.S. Census Bureau Ron Jarmin, who is speaking off camera, as a graphic showing the U.S. population as of April 1, 2020, is displayed during a virtual news conference. When U.S. Census Bureau workers couldn't find out any information about some households after repeatedly mailing them questionnaire reminders and sending census takers to knock on their doors, the statisticians turned to an obscure, last-resort statistical technique known as “imputation.” Less than 1% of households were counted using the technique during the 2020 census. But some conservative political groups are questioning it, potentially laying a foundation for legal challenges to the data that will ultimately be used for drawing congressional and legislative districts.  (U.S. Census Bureau via AP)
FILE- In this file image from video provided by the U.S. Census Bureau, a sign language interpreter, lower left, signs for acting director of the U.S. Census Bureau Ron Jarmin, who is speaking off camera, as a graphic showing the U.S. population as of April 1, 2020, is displayed during a virtual news conference. When U.S. Census Bureau workers couldn't find out any information about some households after repeatedly mailing them questionnaire reminders and sending census takers to knock on their doors, the statisticians turned to an obscure, last-resort statistical technique known as “imputation.” Less than 1% of households were counted using the technique during the 2020 census. But some conservative political groups are questioning it, potentially laying a foundation for legal challenges to the data that will ultimately be used for drawing congressional and legislative districts. (U.S. Census Bureau via AP)
FILE- In this file image from video provided by the U.S. Census Bureau, a sign language interpreter, lower left, signs for acting director of the U.S. Census Bureau Ron Jarmin, who is speaking off camera, as a graphic showing the U.S. population as of April 1, 2020, is displayed during a virtual news conference. When U.S. Census Bureau workers couldn't find out any information about some households after repeatedly mailing them questionnaire reminders and sending census takers to knock on their doors, the statisticians turned to an obscure, last-resort statistical technique known as “imputation.” Less than 1% of households were counted using the technique during the 2020 census. But some conservative political groups are questioning it, potentially laying a foundation for legal challenges to the data that will ultimately be used for drawing congressional and legislative districts. (U.S. Census Bureau via AP)

The U.S. Census Bureau on Tuesday dodged a challenge for now to its use of a controversial statistical method aimed at keeping people’s data private in the numbers used for redrawing congressional and legislative districts after federal judges refused to stop the technique’s implementation.

A panel of three federal judges in Alabama rejected the state of Alabama’s request for a preliminary injunction to halt the Census Bureau from using the method called differential privacy. The decision in federal court in Opelika, Alabama, allows the Census Bureau, for now, to proceed toward its goal of releasing the redistricting data in mid-August.

The federal judges dismissed counts brought by Alabama that said differential privacy would produce inaccurate data and was unconstitutional. They also dismissed a count by Alabama challenging the Census Bureau’s timetable for releasing the data, but they allowed that count to proceed for three Alabama politicians who joined the state in the lawsuit. The state of Alabama and the politicians also claimed in the lawsuit that the Census Bureau violated proper decision-making rules when coming up with differential privacy, and the judges allowed those counts to move ahead.

ADVERTISEMENT

Any appeal could go straight to the Supreme Court. Jason Torchinsky, one of the attorneys for Alabama, said he couldn’t immediately comment on the decision. The Census Bureau, and the Commerce Department, which oversees the statistical agency, didn’t respond to a request for comment.

The privacy method known as “differential privacy” adds intentional errors to the data to obscure the identity of any given participant in the 2020 census while still providing statistically valid information. The Census Bureau says more privacy protections are needed than in past decades as technological innovations magnify the threat of people being identified through their census answers, which are confidential by law.

___

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