Studies of Welfare Populations: Data Collection and Research Issues. Data Access Principles That Have to Do with the "Contract" Process

06/01/2002

Principle 10: Put in Writing Mechanisms for Monitoring Confidentiality and Security and for Sanctioning Breaches

A contract between the requesting organization and the department providing the data makes accessing administrative data much easier. In a contract, confidentiality and security measures or requirements are clarified and put in writing. Written provisions to uphold confidentiality and security provide a vehicle for action if a breach of confidentiality occurs. Nearly all our respondents reported that their collaboration was governed by a written contract.

Contracts should include clauses that contractually provide for data security and maintenance of confidentiality. The following list provides examples of provisions that should be specified in any written contract governing access to confidential data. This list, although not intended to be exhaustive, illustrates most of the procedures requested by state agencies for protecting the confidentiality of individuals in research projects using administrative microdata files:

  • Prohibition on redisclosure or rerelease.
  • Specification of electronic data transmission (e.g., encryption methods for network access).
  • Description of storage and/or handling of paper copies of confidential data.
  • Description of storage and/or handling of electronic media such as tapes or cartridges.
  • Description of network security.
  • Requirement for notification of security incidents.
  • Description of methods of statistical disclosure limitation.
  • Description of the disposition of data upon termination of contract.
  • Penalties for breaches.

Furthermore, contracts should include references to statutes that provide for explicit sanctions of breaches of confidentiality. For example, California State Penal Code, Section 502, included in contracts, states that:

(c) Except as provided in subdivision (h), any person who commits any of the following acts is guilty of a public offense:

(1) Knowingly accesses and without permission alters, damages, deletes, destroys, or otherwise uses any data, computer, computer system, or computer network in order to either (A) devise or execute any scheme or artifice to defraud, deceive, or extort, or (B) wrongfully control or obtain money, property, or data.

(2) Knowingly accesses and without permission takes, copies, or makes use of any data from a computer, computer system, or computer network, or takes or copies any supporting documentation, whether existing or residing internal or external to a computer, computer system, or computer network.

(4) Knowingly accesses and without permission adds, alters, damages, deletes, or destroys any data, computer software, or computer programs which reside or exist internal or external to a computer, computer system, or computer network.

(5) Knowingly and without permission disrupts or causes the disruption of computer services or denies or causes the denial of computer services to an authorized user of a computer, computer system, or computer network.

........

(d) (1) Any person who violates any of the provisions of paragraph (1), (2), (4), or (5) of subdivision (c) is punishable by a fine not exceeding ten thousand dollars ($10,000), or by imprisonment in the state prison for 16 months, or two or three years, or by both that fine and imprisonment, or by a fine not exceeding five thousand dollars ($5,000), or by imprisonment in a county jail not exceeding one year, or by both that fine and imprisonment.

All staff members who have access to the confidential data should sign a document agreeing to uphold the required confidentiality measures. This is sometimes called a "personal security agreement," a "confidentiality agreement," or a "disclosure penalty document." This agreement should notify the employee of the penalties for disclosure of the personal identities of the individuals of the data and requires that the employee acknowledge and understand the penalties. This task can be time consuming, but it is worth the effort. It is simplified if files of exemplar documents are maintained (Principles 3 and 9).

If money cannot flow between the requesting organization and the providing organization, then a no-cost contract can be put in place, which puts the requesting agency under the confidentiality constraints.

Principle 11: Congruence of Research Agency Goals: Demonstrated Benefits to Participating Organizations

Successful collaborations occur when all the parties perceive benefits for themselves. Requesting organizations should make sure that the goals of their research contribute to the goals of the organization providing the data. All our respondents reported that this was an important factor is easing the data access process. The importance of studying welfare leavers and the federal funding of the studies helped to facilitate data access. More generally, researchers find that they have greater access to data when there is obvious congruence between their research goals and the agency's need to comply with federal or state requirements, e.g., waiver demonstrations, reporting of performance measures, or completing of specified grant-related evaluations.

But the benefits are not always obvious and can come in many forms. For example, researchers can provide briefings, presentations, or technical assistance on special analyses to state administrators and staff on research completed with the administrative data. Researchers who have successfully obtained administrative data with confidential identifiers can return merged, cleaned, and enhanced databases to their state colleagues. As part of completing their research with the administrative data, researchers often clean and enhance the data. They may eliminate questionable outliers, identify likely biases, develop ways of dealing with the biases, and enhance the data by geocoding addresses. Researchers often develop high levels of expertise with certain types of administrative data. Sometimes researchers develop software applications to do their own analyses of the data which, if provided to the agency, would allow the agency to conduct their own analyses more efficiently. When this expertise comes back to the agency, in the form of briefing, technical assistance, software applications, or other format, the agency sees the benefits to them of sharing these data.

Also, researchers from the academic and nonprofit research fields can serve on and can often provide great benefit to the agencies' ad hoc or standing expert panels. These panels give guidance to the agencies on research methodologies, data analysis, software development, reports or products produced by contractors, development of information systems, public policies, technical administrative procedures, and legislative solutions.

Requesting organizations must seriously consider including services like these to the data-providing agencies in their contracts and requests to state departments. They not only provide state officials with something for the trouble of making data available, but they also provide proof to legislators and the general public that data access provides substantial public benefits.(17)

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