Tuesday, 6 November 2012

Breaching the Contract? Privacy and the UK Census

an article by Catherine Heeney (Consejo Superior de Investigaciones Cientificas, Madrid) published in The Information Society Volume 28 Issue 5 (October-December 2012)


Along with informed consent, anonymisation is an accepted method of protecting the interests of research participants, while allowing data collected for official statistical purposes to be reused by other agencies within and outside government.

The Decennial Census, carried out in a number of countries, including the United Kingdom, is a major event in the production of research data and provides an important resource for a variety of organisations.

This article combines ethical evaluation, a review of relevant law and guidance, and analysis of 30 qualitative interviews (carried out during the period of the 2001 UK Census), in order to explore the adequacy of the current framework for the protection of informational privacy in relation to census data.

Taking account of Nissenbaum’s concept of “contextual integrity”, Vedder’s concept of “categorical privacy”, and Sen’s call to heed of the importance of “actual behaviour”, it will be argued that the current “contractarian” view of the relationship between an individual participant and the organisation carrying out the Census does not engage sufficiently with actual uses of data.

As a result, people have expectations of privacy that are not matched by practice and that the current normative – including the governance – framework cannot capture.

Hazel’s comment:
If people do not have confidence in the privacy of personal information provided to census enumerators then they will soon start providing information that is less than accurate – to the detriment of researchers and planners.

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