Records, Computers and the Rights of Citizens. Mandatory or Voluntary Data Collection?


Poorly conceived data collection can result in various kinds of injury to individuals. As observed earlier, any file of personal data is a potential source of harm to individuals when it is used outside its appropriate context, and much of the personal data in administrative files either is a public record or is vulnerable to legal process.

There is also reason to believe that failure to separate information collected for statistical-reporting or research from data used in entitlement decisions may cause such decisions to be made unfairly. "Race" and "sex" are no longer asked on many application forms because of their acknowledged influence on some types of decision making about individuals. There are circumstances in which other kinds of data may have similarly unwarranted effects.2 Moreover, collecting more information than is needed for day-to-day administrative decisions may discourage people from taking advantage of the services an organization offers. As one witness told the Committee:

. . . . our experience indicates that . . . . rigid adherence to proper data collection often "turns off" many clients, even when the interviewer is ingenious at gathering it. Also counselors often openly resent [having to ask] questions which actually may jeopardize their relationship with a client.

Perhaps most important of all is the intrusive effect of unrestrained data collection on self-esteem. Occasionally one hears that a wealthy citizen has hired a chauffeur and limousine to avoid disclosing his Social Security number, or some other item of information, to a State Department of Motor Vehicles. One is tempted to dismiss such protests as the trivial antics of rich eccentrics; yet they indicate the high cost of trying to escape personal inquiries of organizations that monopolize the distribution of certain privileges and benefits. The plight of the welfare beneficiary is especially extreme in this respect, but with all the forms that everyone of us is constantly filling out, it would probably be hard to find a single individual who has not had one occasion at least to wonder, "Why do they want to know that?" and "What will happen if I refuse to tell them?"

Collecting statistical-reporting and research data in conjunction with the administration of service and payment programs is not intrinsically undesirable. However, such supplementary data gathering should be carefully designed and managed, and should be performed only with the voluntary, informed cooperation of individual respondents. Otherwise only personal data directly and demonstrably germane to a decision about any given individual should be collected.

Separate collection of data for statistical reporting and research could have several practical advantages. First, by increasing the cost of supplementary data gathering, it discourages the collection of useless items. Second, it might reduce the amount of data that must be specially protected because it is identifiable. Although personal data maintained exclusively for statistical reporting and research often need broader and stronger protection than they are afforded,3 differentiating sharply among the purposes and uses of data files should encourage public confidence in organizational record-keeping practices and ease the access control burden that now weighs heavily on some system managers.

Third, separate collection of personal data for statistical reporting and research could help to make the collection process more reliable. We learned of instances in which an ambitious information system's appetite for data has induced careless statistical reporting. This problem appears to be especially prevalent where an information system has been established to help coordinate the activities of a number of small, loosely knit organizations. Such carelessness can frustrate the management objectives of a system by diluting the quality of data furnished to it in ways that may not be recognized or, if recognized, may be very difficult to control.4