Letters to the editor

Agencies understand privacy

The article 'Cleansed agency data may still ID individuals' that appeared on the GCN Web site (go to www.gcn.com and enter 250 in the GCN.com/box) misrepresents not only the specifics but also the tone and thrust of my presentation at the National Conference on Digital Government Research.

Moreover, it unfairly and entirely unjustifiably suggests that government agencies are unaware or inattentive to the issues I discussed.

The digital government research project at the National Institute of Statistical Sciences (NISS) is a partnership between NISS and a number of federal statistical agencies including, at various points in time, the Bureau of Labor Statistics, Bureau of Transportation Statistics, Census Bureau, National Agricultural Statistics Service, the National Center for Education Statistics and the National Center for Health Statistics.

The project is addressing problems of data confidentiality and related problems of data integration and data quality precisely because these agencies are aware, and have been for many years, of the need to protect confidentiality of their data. NISS did not invent these issues. On the contrary, we are studying them precisely because they are of long-standing concern. With the support of the digital government program at the National Science Foundation, NISS has been able to assemble a team of statistical and computer scientists who are working to help the agencies maintain their high standards of confidentiality protection.

My statement that date of birth, ZIP code and gender can identify individuals in many databases, likewise, is well known to the federal statistical agencies. In consequence, they do not release microdata containing this information. The point of my example, which was misconstrued in the article, is that this information, which has in effect always been publicly available, is now accessible much more readily than in the past. The purpose was to help other researchers at the conference understand why we are even studying data confidentiality.

To repeat, these items are not released by agencies, which have long been aware of the associated risks. The failure of the article to mention this is a major disservice to those agencies.

The article is factually incorrect in asserting that I questioned the confidentiality protection in tabular data releases by the Census Bureau or any other agency. My strong scientific opinion is that these releases do not, as the article attributes to me, 'present privacy risks.' We have conducted extensive research on tabular data under the NISS project, largely directed at understanding whether there are principled ways that would allow agencies to release more, or more detailed, tables than they do currently. But this research is still in progress, and whether it will yield usable results remains to be seen. The claim that I questioned current agency practices is unfair to me, and grossly unfair to the agencies.

Alan Karr


National Institute of Statistical Sciences

Research Triangle Park, N.C.

iBook will stay pristine

Regarding the review 'iBook is a lean, mean machine', I'm glad you like the iBook. Until recently I was using the G3 version of the original white iBook and loved it.

To answer your question, our iBook has remained nice and white now for three years. After a lot of hard use, it did end up with scratches on its outside case that were easily removed with some plastic polish.

I used to wax cars; now I'm waxing computers. Go figure. Our iBook has also proven to be very rugged as I know I dropped it at least twice.

I only had one issue with your article and that was your statement that the Airport Extreme card is 802.11b. It's actually 802.11g.

Walter Forlini

IT specialist

Army Human Resources Command

Alexandria, Va.

Cartoon maligned Penn State

As a Penn State graduate, I failed to see the humor in your cartoon on Page 22 of the May 24 issue. I think your magazine owes an apology to all the Penn State alumni that hold legitimate degrees from this institution and are working for the federal government.

Michael K. Schreffler

Customs Systems Requirements Branch

Foreign Trade Division, Census Bureau

Suitland, Md.


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