How Your Census Data are Protected

With heightened community concerns and the first online census, it’s important to share with community members that their data is private and secure.

By Julia Marks (Asian Americans Advancing Justice — Asian Law Caucus), Maria Filippelli (New America), and Raima Roy (Asian Americans Advancing Justice | AAJC)

The census is an important data collecting tool that impacts almost every aspect of our lives. But how exactly is the data used? How is our data protected? And what kind of cybersecurity provisions will be in place for the 2020 Census since it will be primarily conducted online? This blog post will dive deeper into data confidentiality, data use, and data protections in the upcoming decennial census.


The Census Bureau has documented very high rates of concern about how the federal government will use an individual’s census responses. When participants were asked how confident they were that the Bureau would keep their responses safe and confidential, respondents said they were extremely concerned or very concerned. Among Asian Americans, 41 percent had heightened levels of concern. Not only are people concerned that their responses aren’t confidential, additionally they are worried that their answers will be used against them.

With these high levels of distrust with the government, it is important for organizations to emphasize how the strongest laws in the land, otherwise known as Title 13, protect census responses. The Census Bureau cannot share individual records with the public, other federal agencies, or state and local governments. Individual reports are also immune from legal processes and cannot be used as evidence in legal proceedings. The information that the Census Bureau collects from households cannot be used for any purpose other than statistical analysis and cannot be used to the detriment of respondents.

These protections apply to the decennial census, American Community Survey, and any other surveys conducted by the Census Bureau. Statistical data products cannot be traced to individual respondents.

Title 13 is a federal statute and has existed since 1954. It has harsh consequences for people who violate census confidentiality. If a Census Bureau employee were to wrongfully disclose a person’s information, they would receive $250,000 fine, up to five years of prison, or both.

There will not be a citizenship question on the 2020 Census. Though the current administration announced plans to gather citizenship information through administrative records, the confidentiality laws still apply to these datasets. It is important to know this does not mean the Bureau will produce individual census data on people.

The Census Bureau may provide custom tabulations and statistical materials to the public and other government agencies. The Bureau may not violate the confidentiality of individual respondents’ data and may not interfere with the Census Bureau’s goals, objectives, and mission. The Bureau must also publicly disclose the list of requests that are fulfilled. Certain special requests for statistical data must be reported to the Policy Coordination Office such as:

  • Sensitive topics, sensitive populations
  • Topics that have policy implications
  • Topics that may negatively impact the Census Bureau’s reputation

How are Census Data Used?

Census data are used for numerous important aspects of everyday life, including:

  • Federal funding
  • Reapportionment and redistricting
  • Civil rights enforcement
  • Policy-making and planning
  • Business

Census data are used to distribute over $1.5 trillion per year for more than 300 federal programs, including programs that fund loans, direct payments, grants, and loan guarantees. Census data also affect tax credit programs and federal contracting. Decennial census data affect federal funding in a variety of ways, including:

  • Geographic classifications (e.g. per capita income in rural populations)
  • Population estimates
  • Housing estimates
  • Program-specific calculations (e.g. area median income, federal medical assistance percentage)

Census data determine funding for the largest federal programs, such as:

  • Medicaid, Medicare
  • Federal Direct Student Loans, Pell Grants
  • Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program
  • Highway Planning and Construction
  • Section 8 Vouchers
  • Special Education Grants

Reapportionment and Redistricting

In addition to funding, how we are represented in our government is determined by census data. The federal government will reapportion the number of congressional seats in each state, which also affects the Electoral College. It’s predicted that Florida and Texas will have the biggest seat gains in the next cycle, but a differential undercount could affect this. Once this process is complete, the Census Bureau will release its Redistricting Data File for states across the country to start redrawing all their maps. This includes information on population counts, race, ethnicity, number of people that are voting age, and more. Voting rights data are also enforced using census data to make sure districts are fairly drawn and that language assistance is given to communities that meet a certain language threshold.

Census and Cybersecurity

Cybersecurity is how your information is protected and how communication systems are protected, including hardware and software. The 2020 Census will be the most digitized census in the history of the census, meaning that the security of data is crucial. The Census Bureau will have 52 information and communication systems for most of their operations. This covers hiring and enumeration operations. Enumerators in the field will have iPhone devices when they collect information and their devices will have two-factor authentication and remote wipe. This means that an enumerator will have to provide two sets of information to log in (such as password and a fingerprint scan) and if an enumerator loses their iPhone, all of the information on the device can be wiped clean.

Enumerators will have census-specific devices with a whole host of security features so things are as secure as possible. The software features are protected by malware and data are protected by a process called encryption, where your personal responses will be turned into an alphanumeric code. Once a person filling out the census online presses “submit,” those responses are encrypted once over the communication channel and then encrypted a second time once they hit the Census Bureau’s database (two layers of protection). This makes it extremely difficult for anyone to decrypt your data. The Bureau is also working with big tech and private organizations to implement best practices (including Google and Microsoft) and consult on how these big companies keep their data secure. The Census Bureau’s security plan is being monitored by the Government Accountability Office and they are currently working with the Census Bureau to find any gaps in their system.

Census Stakeholder Security

We also have a role to play in keeping the census digitally secure. When people begin to fill out the online census form, keep these tips in mind:

  • Fill out your online census form over a private Wi-Fi network that is protected by a strong password.
  • Keep your browsers updated because these updates usually have the most recent security updates.
  • Keep your operating systems up to date because they also have security patches that work as another security layer to protect your data.

Larger Digital Environment

Disinformation is anticipated to be a threat to the census, especially on social media. Facebook, Twitter, and Google are all invested in stopping the spread of disinformation around the census and elections. The Census Bureau is also working to curtail disinformation and have launched for people to report any misinformation or disinformation about the census.

Census data are crucial in helping decide how over $1.5 trillion will be allocated towards schools, hospitals, roads, and more while also shaping the entire redistricting process. The Census Bureau has the strongest laws in the land protecting our data so your responses are entirely confidential and cannot be shared with any other government agencies. The Bureau is also working hard to create systems to keep your data safe from bad actors online and to make sure the 2020 Census is safe for all to participate. With the census just around the corner, it is important to educate our friends and family on why the census is vital for our communities and safe to fill out.

Want to learn more about census and data? Listen to our Count On Your Census podcast, “Is The Census Safe?,” featuring Terry Ao Minnis, Senior Director of Census and Voting Programs at Asian Americans Advancing Justice | AAJC, and Samer Khalaf, National President of the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee.

Julia Marks is a staff attorney with the Voting Rights and Census program at Asian Americans Advancing Justice — Asian Law Caucus, Maria Filippelli a Public Interest Technology Census Fellow at New America, and Raima Roy is the Program Associate for Census and Civic Engagement at Asian Americans Advancing Justice | AAJC.

Advancing Justice | AAJC

Working to empower Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders to participate in our democracy and fighting for civil and human rights for all.

Advancing Justice | AAJC

Written by

Fighting for civil rights for all and working to empower #AAPIs to participate in our democracy. Follow: @johncyangdc @tao_minnis @meganessaheb @kjbagchi

Advancing Justice | AAJC

Working to empower Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders to participate in our democracy and fighting for civil and human rights for all.

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