Potential privacy lapse found in Americans’ 2010 census data

This March 23, 2018, file photo shows an envelope containing a 2018 census letter mailed to a U.S. resident as part of the nation's only test run of the 2020 Census. (AP)
Updated 17 February 2019
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Potential privacy lapse found in Americans’ 2010 census data

  • The 8 billion pieces of statistics in census data are supposed to jumbled in a way so what is released publicly for research cannot identify individuals for more than seven decades

WASHINGTON: An internal team at the Census Bureau found that basic personal information collected from more than 100 million Americans during the 2010 head count could be reconstructed from obscured data, but with lots of mistakes, a top agency official disclosed Saturday.
The age, gender, location, race and ethnicity for 138 million people were potentially vulnerable. So far, however, only internal hacking teams have discovered such details at possible risk, and no outside groups are known to have grabbed data intended to remain private for 72 years, chief scientist John Abowd told a scientific conference.
The Census Bureau is now scrapping its old data shielding technique for a state-of-the-art method that Abowd claimed is far better than Google’s or Apple’s.
Some former agency chiefs fear the potential privacy problem will add to the worries that people will avoid answering or lie on the once-every-10-year survey because of the Trump administration’s attempt to add a much-debated citizenship question.
The Supreme Court on Friday announced that it would rule on that proposed question, which has been criticized for being political and not properly tested in the field. The census count is hugely important, helping with the allocation of seats in the House of Representatives and distribution of billions of dollars in federal money.
The 8 billion pieces of statistics in census data are supposed to jumbled in a way so what is released publicly for research cannot identify individuals for more than seven decades. In 2010, the Census Bureau did this by swapping similar household information from one city to another, according to Duke University statistics professor Jerome Reiter.
In the internal tests, Abowd said, officials were able to match of 45 percent of the people who answered the 2010 census with information from public and commercial data sets such as Facebook. But errors in this technique meant that only data for 52 million people would be completely correct — little more than 1-in-6 of the US population.
He said the 2010 census used the best possible privacy protection available, but hackers since then have become more skilled in reconstructing data. To counter their growing abilities, the agency has completely changed the system for 2020 and will offer the “gold standard” of privacy regardless of the fate of the citizenship question, Abowd said.
People “want to know that statistical tables aren’t going to come back and haunt them,” Abowd said at the American Association for the Advancement of Science’s annual meeting. “I promise the American people they will have the privacy that they deserve.”
Georgetown University provost Robert Groves, who headed the 2010 census, said the count had the proper privacy and that every census improves. He lauded the new steps.
Former agency chief Kenneth Prewitt, a professor of policy at Columbia University, said the basic information such as age and ethnicity, even if publicly revealed, isn’t as big a deal as other data breaches.
“There is a widespread privacy anxiety out there that is very much related to Facebook and Google and so forth,” Prewitt said. “I’m much more worried about the fact that my iPhone follows me around every day.”
In a statement, Apple’s Fred Sainz took issue with such privacy concerns: “The iPhone doesn’t follow you around all day long — Apple has no idea where you are nor do we care. And Apple does not sell information to companies.” He noted, however, that consumers can choose apps that know their location.
Abowd said “the 2020 census will be the safest and best protected ever. And this is not as easy as it sounds.”
The new system involves complex mathematical algorithms that inject “noise” into the data, making it harder to get accurate information and providing “a very strong guarantee” of privacy, said Duke University computer sciences professor Ashwin Machanavajjhala.
This increases privacy while lowering the accuracy for researchers who use the statistics. Think of it as one set of knobs being dialed up while a second is dialed down at the same time.
The decision on the official privacy/accuracy setting for 2020 hasn’t been set. Abowd said policy officials, not engineers or scientists, will make that call.
The Census Bureau tried this system in a 2018 survey using an ultra-strict privacy setting that, while not directly comparable to Google or Apple, is hundreds if not thousands of times more secure for privacy than what’s now being used on data from searches using Google Chrome or Apple’s iPhone, Duke’s Reiter said.
Prewitt suggested the public might not understand the extra efforts underway for the 2020 count but would be spooked by the disclosure about the privacy vulnerability, making people more reluctant to comply with the next census.
If the administration succeeds in adding the citizenship question, “there will be a huge evasion of it (the census) and some selective misuse of it,” Prewitt said.
Whether some avoid the survey because of it or lie, neither is a good outcome, making the data less usable, Prewitt said.
Groves said technical experts have serious problems with the citizenship question because it hasn’t been tested in the field, as all census questions usually are. He compared it to putting a new drug on the market before the necessary testing.
“Very subtle wording and positional changes in a thing like the Census can have enormous impact way beyond what we as humans can predict,” Groves said


Brexit in disarray as Theresa May faces possible ouster plot

Updated 24 March 2019
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Brexit in disarray as Theresa May faces possible ouster plot

  • British politics is at fever pitch and nearly three years since the 2016 Brexit referendum
  • With Theresa May humiliated and weakened, ministers insist she and the British government are still in charge of the country

LONDON: The United Kingdom’s exit from the European Union was in disarray on Sunday as Prime Minister Theresa May faced a possible plot by ministers to topple her and parliament prepared to grab control of Brexit from the government.
At one of the most important junctures for the country since World War Two, British politics was at fever pitch and, nearly three years since the 2016 referendum, it was still unclear how, when or if Brexit will ever take place.
With May humiliated and weakened, ministers insisted she and the British government were still in charge of the country, and that the best option was still for parliament to ratify May’s twice-defeated Brexit divorce deal.
As hundreds of thousands of people marched across central London on Saturday to demand another Brexit referendum, May was the subject of what The Sunday Times said was a “coup” by senior ministers seeking to oust her.
The newspaper cited 11 unidentified senior ministers and said they had agreed that the prime minister should stand down, warning that she has become a toxic and erratic figure whose judgment has “gone haywire.”
When asked by Sky about reports in The Sunday Times and other newspapers of a plot and whether she had run out of road, finance minister Philip Hammond said: “No. I don’t think that is the case at all.”
“Changing prime minister wouldn’t help us,” Hammond said. “To be talking about changing the players on the board, frankly, is self-indulgent at this time.”
Hammond said the best way forward would be for parliament to back May’s deal, although he said that it might not be approved and so parliament should then try to find a way to end the impasse.
“I’m realistic that we may not be able to get a majority for the prime minister’s (Brexit) deal and if that is the case then parliament will have to decide not just what it’s against but what it is for,” he said.
Brexit had been due to happen on March 29 before May secured a delay in talks with the EU on Thursday.
Now a May 22 departure date will apply if parliament rallies behind the British prime minister and she is able to pass her deal. If she fails to do so, Britain will have until April 12 to offer a new plan or decide to leave the EU without a treaty.
Some lawmakers have asked May to name her departure date as the price for supporting her deal, though it was unclear when a third vote might take place.
If May’s deal is dead, then parliament will try to find a different option. That opens an array of options including a much softer divorce than May had intended, a referendum, a revocation of the Article 50 divorce papers or even an election.
Brexit Secretary Steve Barclay said May’s deal was the best option and urged people to get behind the prime minister.
“The government and the prime minister are in charge,” Barclay said. May went to her usual church service near her Chequers country residence on Sunday with her husband.
The Sunday Times reported that May’s de-facto deputy, David Lidington, was one contender to be interim prime minister but others are pushing for Environment Secretary Michael Gove or Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt.
“I don’t think that I have any wish to take over from the PM, I think (she) is doing a fantastic job,” Lidington told reporters outside his house.
“One thing that working closely with the prime minister does is cure you completely of any lingering shred of ambition to want to do that task,” he quipped.
Lawmakers are due on Monday to debate a government motion saying parliament has considered a statement made by May on March 15 which set out the government’s next steps on Brexit, including the plan to seek a delay.
They are likely to propose changes, or amendments, to this motion setting out alternative ways forward on Brexit. These are expected to include a proposal to approve May’s deal only if it is put to a public vote.
While amendments are not legally binding, instead simply exerting political pressure on May to change course, lawmakers could use one to attempt to change the rules of parliament to wrest control of the Brexit process from the government.
A British election could be the consequence of parliament seizing control of the Brexit process if lawmakers back proposals contrary to the pledges the government was elected on, Barclay said.