@Info.Policy: Census Bureau stumbles over DHS request

Robert Gellman

The Census Bureau stubbed its toe this summer when it gave Arab-American population statistics to the Homeland Security Department. There's a lesson here for other agencies.

Let's start with the facts. One Census tabulation listed cities with more than 1,000 Arab-American residents. Another provided ZIP code breakdowns of Arab-American populations sorted by country of origin.

DHS explained that it wanted to determine where to post airport signs in Arabic. That explanation doesn't make much sense. The data obtained doesn't identify languages spoken, and better information for that purpose is available elsewhere. It still isn't clear whether DHS didn't know what it was doing or was simply disingenuous.

There are three things worth noting about this situation. First, Census disclosed no personally identifiable data. Second, no one said the disclosures broke any laws. Third, the bureau got nailed anyway.

Civil liberty, privacy and ethnic advocacy groups got upset. The New York Times ran a couple of stories, as did other newspapers.

So was this a flap over nothing? I don't think so. Census gets extra scrutiny, partly because it will never live down having provided the statistical data used to find Japanese-Americans for internment during World War II.

Census knows it needs a clean image and cooperation to conduct the decennial census. The bureau tries hard to listen to ethnic communities, civil libertarians and privacy groups.

What went wrong here? Census followed the law and its own procedures in responding to the request. But doing the legal thing isn't the same as doing the right thing.

Census tried to clean up the damage. It implemented new procedures on the release of potentially sensitive data to law enforcement agencies to ensure extra review next time. That helps, but there are still Freedom of Information Act fights pending over access to Census records.

Lessons? First, remember the classic Washington Post test: How would an action look if reported on the front page? It doesn't matter that you have a good response. Ideally, you don't want your agency actions to be newsworthy in the first place.

Second, don't surprise people. They hate surprises. If a person or group may be affected by an action, talk to them about it first. They may buy it if they aren't surprised. If they don't, you still have time to adjust.

No sale

Third, continue to be careful with data. Homeland defense justifications don't sell the way they did two years ago.

Fourth, disclose all relevant documents at the earliest possible time. Stop the bleeding and cut off later stories.

Finally, don't just rely on legalities or lawyers. Broaden your focus. Get another point of view. If you have been shoveling data out the door for years, you may be desensitized to how it looks to others. A second opinion might save you from a public relations fiasco.

The trouble with this advice is that if you know enough to get a second opinion, you may not need it.

Robert Gellman is a Washington privacy and information policy consultant. E-mail him at rgellman@netacc.net.

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