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The Security of our Secrets: A History of Privacy and Confidentiality in Law and Statistical Practice

61 Pages Posted: 3 Mar 2006  

Douglas J. Sylvester

Arizona State University - College of Law

Sharon Lohr

Arizona State University


United States statistical programs and practices are among the best in the world. Lurking underneath this success, however, is a riddle - given the potential for abuse and harm, why do Americans willingly hand over their personal information to government data collection programs? In this article, we seek an answer to this riddle by examining the evolution of United States legal and statistical programs, with a particular focus on the United States Census of Population. In so doing, we explore the statistical programs, policies, regulations, and codes of ethics that have evolved in the United States over the past two centuries. We conclude that the willingness of individuals to disclose their personal information is not linked to programs of legal coercion or to simple cost/benefit analyses. Instead, we note that the intent of United States statistical programs has been to increase the level of trust and confidence that individuals have that their information will be kept strictly confidential. Various legal frameworks and the promulgation of statistical society codes of ethics buttress our basic conclusion that trust is an essential characteristic of a successful and efficient modern statistical program. We conclude by noting some recent developments that may threaten this trust program, including post 9/11 national security efforts, the rise of new data-gathering and analysis technologies, and the increasing use of private data collectors for government statistical programs.

Keywords: Privacy, Census, Trust, Cognition, Behavioral, History

Suggested Citation

Sylvester, Douglas J. and Lohr, Sharon, The Security of our Secrets: A History of Privacy and Confidentiality in Law and Statistical Practice. Denver University Law School, Vol. 83, pp. 147-209, 2005. Available at SSRN:

Douglas J. Sylvester (Contact Author)

Arizona State University - College of Law ( email )

Box 877906
Tempe, AZ 85287-7906
United States

Sharon Lohr

Arizona State University ( email )

Farmer Building 440G PO Box 872011
Tempe, AZ 85287
United States

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