Records, Computers and the Rights of Citizens. VI. Special Problems of Statistical Reporting and Research Systems


When the United States was at war with Japan in 1942, the War Department asked the Census Bureau for the names and addresses of all Japanese-Americans who were living on the West Coast at the time of the 1940 Census. Persons of Japanese descent were being rounded up and transported inland for fear that some of them might prove disloyal in the event of a Japanese attack. Because of Title 13 of the U. S. Code, however, which prohibits disclosure of census data furnished by individuals, the Census Bureau could, and did, refuse to give out the names and addresses.

In 1969, the Mercer County (ICJ.) Prosecutor's Office subpoenaed the payment histories of 14 families participating in an income-maintenance experiment being conducted by a private contract research organization in Princeton. The prosecutor suspected that the families were defrauding the county welfare department by not reporting their monthly income from the experiment. The contractor found that it had no legal basis for resisting the subpoenas, even though its federally funded subcontract explicitly provided that "individual personal and financial information pertaining to all individuals and families who participate as respondents in this study shall remain strictly confidential."1

The difference between these two cases is clear and fundamental: In the Census case, the data were protected by a statute2 from disclosure in individually identifiable form; in the New Jersey case they were not.3 This chapter examines some of the problems posed by legally unprotected statistical-reporting and research files that contain data about identifiable individuals. It focuses on the need to protect individual data subjects from injury through disclosure of data about them, on one hand, and, on the other, the need to make files of personal data more accessible to persons who can make constructive use of the data they contain.