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Census Report Found 'Unprecedented' Fears About Privacy Last Year

Concerns about confidentiality and immigration status were discovered months before the Department of Justice asked to add a question about citizenship.  
Communities with large immigrant populations were already expressing fears about census privacy in 2017.
Communities with large immigrant populations were already expressing fears about census privacy in 2017. Robert Galbraith/Reuters

Back in November, a research scientist at the Census Bureau produced a report based on unusual findings in the field. Across a number of projects and “pretests” (or training exercises) conducted between February and September 2017, bureau researchers discovered that survey respondents who were asked questions during focus groups or sample tests were behaving in unexpected ways: They were giving false names or incorrect birthdates, leaving family members out of questionnaires, or abandoning interviews before they were finished.

Respondents were “spontaneously expressing concerns to researchers and field staff about confidentiality and data access relating to immigration.” The report was produced by the bureau’s Center for Survey Management for a meeting of the National Advisory Committee. Of particular concern: The report documented a rise in fear among respondents months before the prospect of adding a citizenship question to the 2020 census was officially requested by the Department of Justice.