Studies of Welfare Populations: Data Collection and Research Issues. Data Alteration

06/01/2002

Cross tabulations. One way to avoid unwanted disclosure is to present only aggregate data in the form of tables. In many cases, this amply limits disclosure, although at the cost of losing the analytical power that comes from being able to analyze individual-level data. Moreover, in some cases, the identification of individuals, families, firms, or other specific units can still be inferred from the tables themselves. One way to guard against this is to require a minimum number of reporting units, for example, five individuals in each cell of the table. This goal can be achieved starting with tables developed from unadjusted microdata through aggregation, suppression, random rounding, controlled rounding, and confidentiality edits (see Cox, 1980; Duncan and Pearson, 1991; Office of Management and Budget, 1994, 1999; Jabine, 1999; Kim and Winkler, no date).

Aggregation involves reducing the dimensionality of tables such that no individual cells violate the rules for minimum reporting. For example, data for small geography such as census block groups might be aggregated to census tracks for sparsely represented areas.

Suppression is the technique of not providing any estimate where cells are below a certain prespecified size. As row and column totals generally are provided in tabular data, there is a further requirement when suppressing cells to identify complementary cells that are also suppressed to ensure that suppressed data cannot be imputed. The identification of complementary cells and ensuring that suppressed cells cannot be imputed generally requires judgments of which potential complementary cells are least important from the vantage of data users. It also requires statistical analyses to ensure that suppressed cells cannot be estimated.

Random rounding is a technique whereby all cells are rounded to a certain level, such as to multiples of 5. The specific procedure provides that the probability for rounding up or down is established on the initial cells value. For example, the number 2 would not automatically be rounded to 0 but instead would be assigned a 60-percent probability of rounding down and a 40- percent probability of rounding up, and the final rounded value would be based on these random probabilities. Similarly, 14 would have an 80-percent probability of rounding to 15 and a 20-percent probability of rounding to 10. A problem with random rounding is that row and column cell totals will not necessarily equal reported actual totals.

Controlled rounding is a process using linear programming or other statistical techniques to adjust the value of rounded cells so that they equal published (actual) totals. Potential problems with this approach include (1) the need for more sophisticated tools, (2) for some situations there may not be any solution, and (3) for large tables the process may be computationally intensive.

Confidentiality edit is a process whereby the original microdata are modified. One confidentiality edit procedure called "swapping" is to identify households in different communities that have a certain set of identical characteristics and swap their records. The Census Bureau used this procedure in developing some detailed tabulations of the 100-percent file. Another edit procedure called "blank and impute" involves selecting a small sample of records and blanking them out and refilling with imputed values.

Tables of magnitude data. An additional problem arises with magnitude data such as total employees or revenue for a firm. For example, where a single firm is dominant, the publication of data on the industry may allow a fairly accurate estimate of the firm's data. In this case rules need to be established, for instance that no single firm can account for more than 80 percent of the cell total, to provide protection. This rule can be generalized in the form of "no fewer than n (a small number) of firms can contribute more than k percent of the cell total." These rules are used to identify "sensitive cells" that require suppression. The process of suppression requires complementary suppression, as discussed.

Unfortunately, all of these methods lead to a loss of significant amounts of information. Published tables, because they generally only provide cross-tabulations of two or three data elements, often do not provide the precise analysis that a researcher needs, and they are usually not useful for multivariate analysis. In these cases, researchers need to obtain microdata.

Masking public use microdata(18) Although microdata provide extraordinary analytical advantages over aggregated data, they also pose substantial disclosure problems for two reasons. Microdata sets, by definition, include records containing information about individual people or organizations, and micro-datasets often include many data elements that could be used to identify individuals. Although it is very unlikely that an individual could be identified on a data set by age group, size category, the combination of these three items might be enough to identify at least some people (Bethlehem et al, 1990:40). In fact:

In every microdata set containing 10 or more key variables, many persons can be identified by matching this file with another file containing the key and names and addresses (disclosure matching). Furthermore, response knowledge (i.e., knowing that the person is on the file) nearly always leads to identification (disclosure by response knowledge), even on a low-resolution key. Finally, analysis showed that on a key consisting of only two or three identifiers, a considerable number of persons are already unique in the sample, some of them "rare persons" and therefore also unique in the population" (p. 44).

A variety of methods can be used to mask the identity of individuals or households in microdata, although it is harder to mask the identities of firms because of the small number of firms and the high skew of establishment size in most business sectors. Units can be masked by providing only sample data, not including obvious identifiers, limiting geographical detail, and limiting the number of data elements in the file. High-visibility elements can be masked by using top or bottom coding, recoding into intervals or rounding, adding noise, and swapping records.

  • Sampling provides a means of creating uncertainty about the uniqueness of individuals or households.
  • Eliminating obvious identifiers involves removing items such as name, address, and Social Security number or other variables that would allow for identification of individuals or households.
  • Limiting geographical detail creates a greater pool and reduces the chance of identification of records with unique characteristics. For example, the Census Bureau restricted the geography for the Public Use Microdata Sample for the 1990 Census to areas with populations of at least 100,000.
  • Limiting the number of data elements in a file reduces the probability that an individual can be uniquely identified.
  • Top and bottom coding provide a means of eliminating disclosure risk. Top coding establishes an upper bound on continuous data, for example, 85 years and older would be coded as 85. Bottom coding is similar and might be used for old housing units.
  • Recoding into intervals and rounding are a means of taking continuous data and grouping the data. In each case unique information can be modified to mask identity. For example, data of birth might be transformed into age groups.
  • Random noise can be added to microdata by adding or multiplying values by a randomly determined factor. This process can be useful in preventing individuals from attempting to match the public use database with other databases where identity is known.
  • Swapping, blanking and imputing, and blurring are techniques used to modify the original data but not significantly change the statistical properties of the database. Swapping is identifying matching records based on key fields and swapping the detailed data. Blanking and imputing is to blank out certain data on selected records and statistically impute new values. Blurring is to replace exact values with mean values of all records meeting certain profiles.

Many of these methods are now commonly used when microdata are released to the public. Researchers, however, worry that the loss of information from data alteration may make it difficult or even impossible to do many kinds of analysis, and some statisticians have suggested that these methods do not provide sufficient disclosure protection (Bethlehem et al., 1990). These worries have led some to propose even more radical alterations of the data that would amount to creating "simulated data."

Simulated data can be created from the original microdata by using variants of imputation methods (see Rubin, 1987, 1993; Little and Rubin, 1987, Kennickell, 1997, 1998) to impute entirely new values of every variable for every case. The resulting data set is composed entirely of "made-up" people, and it may be possible to do analysis that is almost as good with these data as with the original information. Developing these methods is an active research area.

Some researchers, however, are wary of these methods, and in a recent seminar run by the Committee on National Statistics, Richard Suzman of the National Institute on Aging (NIA) reported that "all leading researchers currently supported by NIA are opposed to the imposition of synthetic data" (National Research Council, 2000:32). The solution may be to turn to institutional solutions, as suggested by Bethlehem et al. (1990:45):

Therefore, if microdata are released under the conditions that the data may be used for statistical purposes only and that no matching procedures may be carried out at the individual level, any huge effort to identify and disclose clearly shows malicious intent. In view of the duty of a statistical office to disseminate statistical information, we think disclosure protection for this kind of malpractice could and should be taken care of by legal arrangements, and not by restrictions on the data to be released.

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