Sharing data, protecting privacy

"Record Linkage and Privacy: Issues in creating New Federal Research and Statistical Information"

Thanks to advances in information technology, it's now much easier for agencies to collect details about key subjects by combining information stored in systems across government. This has created a wealth of useful data, but it also raises privacy concerns.

Last month, the General Accounting Office released a guide intended to help agencies manage how to cross-reference and share data, yet still protect the privacy of the individual from whom they are collecting information.

The guide addresses "record linkage," where information about a set of people is combined with apparently unrelated information collected on the same people to produce new research and statistics. For instance, the Social Security Administration and the Internal Revenue Service share tax-related information.

For now, GAO suggests several potential steps, including soliciting an independent assessment, input from the data subjects, and advice from privacy and subject experts.

Once a project is in place, agencies must follow laws, regulations and policies when they use personal information. These include the Privacy Act of 1974 and December 2000 guidance from the Office of Management and Budget. GAO suggests using IT systems to help track agencywide compliance with these mandates.

The GAO guide is not the final word, but "it really gets at the idea that each set of information is different," said Ari Schwartz, policy analyst at the Center for Democracy and Technology. GAO is right to give general ideas rather than specific rules for how to handle linkage projects, he said.

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