Former US Census director to discuss importance of privacy

Sociology’s Steve Murdock to deliver Feb. 21 Scientia lecture

In an age where privacy seems increasingly under attack by digital technology, the U.S. Census Bureau track record and commitment to data privacy have never been more important, said Rice sociologist Steve Murdock, a former director of the bureau who will address the topic at the next Scientia Lecture at 4 p.m. Feb. 21 in Duncan Hall’s McMurtry Auditorium.

Murdock’s lecture, “Why Is Privacy Critical to the Success of a Public Census?: Observations From a Former Director of the United States Bureau of the Census,” will address the tension between gathering information about people through the census and the privacy protections that are built into place for citizens.

Steve Murdock

Steve Murdock

Murdock, the Allyn and Gladys Cline Professor of Sociology and director of Rice’s Hobby Center for the Study of Texas, discussed some of the issues in a recent Rice News interview.

Q: As a former director of the U.S. Census Bureau, what’s the one thing you wished every American understood about the census?

The Census (Bureau) does not share your data with anyone else, including any other government agencies, and confidentiality is protected in every possible way. The bureau has an incredible record on that, so I have no fear that people’s records will be kept private. But data privacy is often in the news, and I am worried about whether the public understands just how seriously privacy is taken at the bureau. A federal Census employee can go to jail if they share someone’s information with anybody outside the agency.

Q: What could happen if people question whether their census data will be kept private?

It could result in a large increase in the number of people refusing to complete the census form, and that would result in incorrect allocations of the number of seats in the U.S. House of Representatives. This would result in areas of over- and under-representation in Congress, but it could also wind up hurting the people that don’t respond, because there are cases where they can benefit from participating because even though their information is kept private from others, they are entitled to use that information themselves, as verification for obtain a Social Security number, for example.

Q: What’s the biggest threat to census privacy in the United States?

Fraud is a related concern. The Census Bureau has many processes in place to prevent fraud in the submission of census forms, and it’s constantly looking for ways to better protect against fraud. If these systems were to break down for some reason, there could be an increase in the potential for people not to respond or to take the time to fill the form out correctly. One thing we have found over the years is that when people actually understand what the data is used for and why we collect it, they will invest a great deal of time and energy to make sure they fill the form out correctly.

Scientia is a Rice institute founded in 1980 to promote scholarship and research in the general area of history of science and culture. For more information on Scientia and upcoming lectures, visit


About Jade Boyd

Jade Boyd is science editor and associate director of news and media relations in Rice University's Office of Public Affairs.