Census Confidentiality in Britain

  • C. Hakim


The population census is the largest single survey of demographic and socio-economic conditions in any country; it is also usually the most visible. As such it occupies a special position both as a source of social and demographic data and as the most prominent example of social research more generally. In recent years, the population census has become the subject of public debate, not only in Britain, but also in most other countries in Europe and North America. To some extent it now carries the burden of justifying not only itself but social research more broadly. And as the most visible of official data collections, it must bear the brunt of the new concern with privacy and data confidentiality.


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Notes and References

  1. 2.
    Alan F. Westin, Privacy and Freedom, New York, Atheneum, 1976, Part I. But see also the discussions of privacy in Stephen T. Margulis (ed.), ‘Privacy as a Behavioural Phenomenon’, Journal of Social Issues, 33, no. 3, Summer 1977, and byGoogle Scholar
  2. Walter M. Carlson, ‘Privacy’, in Martha E. Williams (ed.), Annual Review of Information Science and Technology, 12, New York, Knowledge Industry Publications Inc. for American Society for Information Science, 1977, pp. 279–305. A discussion of privacy and confidentiality with reference to government statistical offices, and the population census in particular, is given inGoogle Scholar
  3. David H. Flaherty, Privacy and Government Databanks: An International Perspective, London, Mansell Scientific, 1979.Google Scholar
  4. 13.
    The increase in the volume and range of census output is described in C. Hakim, Data Dissemination for the Population Census, Occasional Paper No. 11, London, OPCS, 1978.Google Scholar
  5. 18.
    While this is generally true, some of the early returns have survived. For example, most of the original census returns for 1821 and 1831 for Poplar, Middlesex, are held (in bound volumes) at the Central Library, Bancroft Road, London E1. See I. R. Harrison, ‘Poplar Genealogy: The Resources of a Dockland Parish’, The Genealogists Magazine, 18, no. 7, September 1976, pp. 352–3.Google Scholar
  6. 19.
    Duncan, op. cit., p. 131; David H. Flaherty, ‘Access to Historic Census Data in Canada, A Comparative Analysis’, Canadian Public Administration, 20, no. 3, Fall 1977, pp. 481–98.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  7. 28.
    The type of microdata collected in Britain (including census information), policies on the release of publicuse sample data, and the potential applications of microdata in research and statistical analysis are described in more detail in Flaherty’s comparative study of policy and practice in Canada, the United States, the Federal Republic of Germany, Sweden and the United Kingdom. See David H. Flaherty, Privacy and Government Databanks: An International Perspective, London, Mansell Scientific, 1979. The Bellagio Conference on government microdata concluded that a number of important fields of research required access to microdata, especially from government sources, and that publicuse samples were the single most important way in which central statistical agencies could assist the research community.Google Scholar
  8. See David H. Flaherty, ‘Final Report of the Bellagio Conference on Privacy, Confidentiality, and the Use of Government Microdata for Research and Statistical Purposes’, Statistical Reporter, no. 78–8, May 1978, pp. 274–9, reprinted in the Journal of the Royal Statistical Society, Series A, 141, Part 3, 1978, pp. 401–6.Google Scholar
  9. 29.
    See, for example, the consultative paper presented to the Research Interests Advisory Committee on the 1981 Census, OPCS and GRO(S), 1981 Census: Datatapes, CEN (RES) (77)9, July 1977; Census Division, OPCS, ‘Planning for the 1981 Census of Population’, Population Trends, no. 10, Winter 1977, p. 9.Google Scholar
  10. 30.
    The data-censoring techniques being evaluated include variants of those discussed by Donald T. Campbell et al. in ‘Confidentiality-Preserving Modes of Access to Files and to Interfile Exchange for Useful Statistical Analysis’, Evaluation Quarterly, 1, no. 2, May 1977, pp. 269–99, such as the deletion of identifiers; the use of crude report categories ; the restriction of ‘public’variables; microaggregation; and error inoculation.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  11. 31.
    Philip Redfern, ‘Office of Population Censuses and Surveys’, Population Trends, no. 4, Summer 1976, pp. 21–3.Google Scholar
  12. 32.
    P. Gray and F. A. Gee, A Quality Check on the 1966 Ten Per Cent Sample Census of England and Wales, HMSO, 1972.Google Scholar
  13. 33.
    Results of these surveys are reported in Judy Sadler and Tony Whitworth, Reserves of Nurses, HMSO, 1975; OPCS, 1971 Census Income Follow-up Survey, OPCS Studies on Medical and Population Subjects No. 38, HMSO, 1978;Google Scholar
  14. Faith Banfield, ‘1971 Census: Voluntary Survey on Income’, Population Trends, no. 12, Summer 1978, pp. 18–21. Some results of the survey on qualified manpower are reported in ‘Employment of the Highly Qualified 1971–1986’, Department of Employment Gazette, 86, no. 5, May 1978, pp. 531–9.Google Scholar
  15. 36.
    OPCS, Cohort Studies: New Developments, Studies in Medical and Population Subjects No. 25, HMSO, 1973, p. 4.Google Scholar
  16. 41.
    W. F. F. Kemsley, ‘Family Expenditure Survey: A study of differential response based on a comparison of the 1971 sample with the census’, Statistical News. no. 31. November 1975. pp. 16–21.Google Scholar
  17. 45.
    Secretary of State for Social Services in reply to Mr John Moore, Hansard, 954, no. 164, 28 July 1978, cols. 710–11.Google Scholar
  18. 49.
    For a history of the controversy, see D. V. Glass, Numbering the People: The eighteenth-century controversy and the development of census and vital statistics in Britain. Farnborough, Hants, Saxon House, 1973.Google Scholar
  19. 50.
    Rt Hon K. Younger, Report of the Committee on Privacy, HMSO, 1972; Computers and Privacy, op. cit.; Computers: Safeguards for Privacy, Cmnd. 6354, HMSO, 1975.Google Scholar
  20. 51.
    Among the data-censoring techniques considered so far is the random deletion of (correct) response codes and their replacement by the automated editing process. See Barry Werner, ‘The Development of Automatic Editing for the Next Census of Population’, Statistical News, no. 37, May 1977, pp. 10–14.Google Scholar
  21. 54.
    For example, the release of census statistics showing that certain local authorities had high proportions of households with lodgers in council housing might lead those authorities to increase their degree of inspection and identify the households, even though the personal information they supplied had been fully protected by the census office. This point is made by Linehan, ‘Problems of Confidentiality with Particular Reference to Population Censuses’, Statistical Reporter, August 1972, p. 17.Google Scholar
  22. 55.
    Herbert C. Kelman, ‘Privacy and Research with Human Beings’, Journal of Social Issues, 33, no. 3, 1977 pp. 173–6. See also Bulmer, Chapter 4 above, pp. 61–3; Josephson, Chapter 7 above, passim; and Petersen, Chapter 13 below, pp. 178–81.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  23. 57.
    C. Hakim, INSEE: Data Dissemination for the French Censuses, London, OPCS, July 1977, p. 5.Google Scholar
  24. 59.
    Sir Claus Moser, ‘The Environment in which Statistical Offices will Work in Ten Years’ Time’, Statistical News, no. 38, August 1977, p. 4.Google Scholar

Copyright information

© Macmillan Publishers Limited 1979

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  • C. Hakim

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