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CHIPS Articles: The 2020 United States Census – Is my Personal Information Safe?

The 2020 United States Census – Is my Personal Information Safe?
By Steve Daughety and Suzette Thompson - April-June 2020
By the time you read this article, the 2020 Census will be well underway and many of you will have already responded to the Census questionnaire. Invitations to respond to the questionnaire were mailed in March. The 2020 Census is a massive undertaking by the Census Bureau in its attempt to count everyone living in the United States as of April 1, 2020.

Responses to the questionnaire can be provided online, by mail, and over the phone. As you can imagine, this presents an enormous challenge in protecting the privacy of individuals during the collection, safeguarding and storage of this data. As of this writing, approximately 60% of all households have responded.

The United States Constitution mandates a census of the population every 10 years. Census data helps determine the number of seats each state holds in the U.S. House of Representatives and how billions of dollars in federal funding will be allocated by federal, state, and local governments for the next 10 years.

Additionally, the information collected by the Census Bureau contributes in many other ways, such as in the preparedness, response and recovery of disaster mitigation.

Census Bureau data is currently being used in the battle to help contain and manage the spread of COVID-19 by using statistics to identify, for example, counties with large at-risk populations such as the elderly.

So your question might be: Is my personal information safe? The following information should ease your concerns. The census questionnaire you received does not ask for or collect your Social Security number, political affiliation, or for any financial information, such as your bank account or credit card numbers.

However, you should be aware that if you are contacted by phone by anyone claiming to be from the Census Bureau and they ask for any of the above personal information, it is a scam and should be reported via phone (844-330-2020) to a Census Bureau representative. (Should someone come to your home claiming to be from the Census Bureau and you suspect fraud, contact your local police department.)

The Census does collect personal information related to the number of individuals living in your household, the type of home where you reside, your telephone number in case there are questions about how you filled out the form, for example, individual’s names, sex, ethnicity, race, age, and the relationship of household members included in the response. There is no citizenship question in the 2020 U.S. Census.

The U.S. Census Bureau is bound by law, Title 13 of the U.S. Code, to protect your personally identifiable information (PII) and keep that information confidential. It cannot be shared with any other government agency, law enforcement, or landlord. It cannot be used against you by any government agency or court. Your answers are used only to produce statistics. Every Census Bureau employee takes an oath to protect your information for life.

The answers you provide are only used to produce statistics. Your identity is kept anonymous. The Census Bureau is not permitted to publicly release your responses in any way that could identify you or anyone else in your home.

The Census Bureau has strict policies and statistical safeguards in place to help protect the confidentiality of your information. Before releasing any statistical data products, the Census Bureau verifies that they meet these confidentiality standards. The Census Bureau follows industry best practices and federal requirements to protect all data collected. The information technology infrastructure is designed to defend against and contain cyber threats, which is considered a top priority.

The Census Bureau continually refines their approach to identify, prevent, detect, and respond to these threats. Everyone is encouraged to participate in the 2020 Census by responding to their invitation as soon as possible and encourage others to do the same. As you participate in the Census, you can do so with the confidence that the information you provide will be protected and safeguarded and used to benefit all of us.

The information in this article is based on information from the U.S. Census Bureau website. For more detailed and up-to-date information regarding the 2020 Census, please visit 2020CENSUS.GOV.

Steve Daughety is the Privacy Lead Cybersecurity & Privacy in the office of the Chief Information Security Officer (CISO), Department of the Navy CIO.

Suzette Thompson is a member of the DON CIO Privacy Team in the office of the CISO.

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