Ideas. Action. Results.

Data Privacy and Data Access Frontier: Strategies Exist for Concurrent Improvements

By Jenna Shelton

Wednesday, December 12, 2018

Is it possible to use data and protect privacy? Two independent blue-ribbon panels unanimously concluded over the past 18 months that secure data access can be encouraged while simultaneously maintaining stringent confidentiality protections. With one of the largest data collection exercises in the country – the 2020 census – coming up, it is important that as the government seeks participation it explains to the public that strong privacy protections are in effect.

The government’s privacy protections ensure that a wide array of data can be used for informing solutions for pressing problems facing society, like combatting the opioid epidemic and helping veterans find jobs. Both the U.S. Commission on Evidence-Based Policymaking (CEP) and the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine (NASEM) issued reports in 2017 that encouraged data to be made available for statistical activities without identifying any individual or specific entity.

The two panels issued strikingly similar recommendations, unanimously approved by their respective members that recognized a strong existing foundation for government privacy laws as well as targeted areas for improvement. Both highlighted the role for data in supporting evidence-building activities that can provide knowledge about effective government policies and programs. Both highlighted the need for improving access to other forms of existing data like administrative records, in part to address the rising costs of implementing household surveys. The collective recommendations from the commission and NASEM committee suggest tangible opportunities to not just use data, but to do so with stronger privacy protections, increased transparency, and a better infrastructure for responsibly stewarding data resources. 

Can Data Be Productively Used While Protecting Privacy?

Both panels offered strong support for an existing infrastructure of federal privacy laws, including the Confidential Information Protection and Statistical Efficiency Act (CIPSEA) and the Census Bureau’s primary authorization (Title 13 of the US Code). These two laws include strong civil and criminal penalties that help safeguard confidentiality. Using authorities such as these, the commission described a concept called the access-privacy frontier: an idea that data access and privacy can be achieved simultaneously through the implementation of emerging technology in federal agencies.

Building on the existing privacy framework, both recommended: exploring the applications of privacy-protective technologies for simultaneously protecting confidential data while enabling its use, such as multiparty computation expanding the potential uses of confidential data for evidence building which does not identify or disclose information about individuals; and encouraging stringent privacy protocols when combining different types of data, then using those data for evidence-building activities.  

How Can the Government Reasonably Enable Secure Data Access for Evidence Building?

Enabling data access for certain research activities should complement comprehensive data security and confidentiality protections. The existing infrastructure of the Federal Statistical Research Data Centers provides some qualified researchers the capabilities to do so for approved projects. However, even those centers have limits on the types of data that are needed for answering important policy questions. For example, both blue-ribbon panels identified legal barriers for accessing data on income and earnings, which are often valuable for assessing outcomes of policies in agencies that do not primarily collect that information.

Enabling qualified researchers to securely access administrative data in areas such as income and earnings could offer an opportunity for the federal government to make some data collection activities more efficient while also gaining meaningful insights about important policies. Both panels recommended enabling secure access for data linked across policy areas through a common process and for encouraging better sharing of data between states and the federal government.

Next Steps

To foster a culture for evidence building, the federal government needs a robust infrastructure for enabling data protections along with secure data access. While Congress initiated a proposal to implement certain recommendations and the executive branch is in the process of developing a federal data strategy to improve data coordination, much work remains before either panels’ vision will be realized.