Epistemic Disconnects Surrounding the US Census Bureau’s Use of Differential Privacy

29 Apr, 2022

Epistemic Disconnects Surrounding the US Census Bureau’s Use of Differential Privacy

When the U.S. Census Bureau announced its intention to modernize its disclosure avoidance procedures for the 2020 Census, it sparked a controversy that is still underway. The move to differential privacy introduced technical and procedural uncertainties, leaving stakeholders unable to evaluate the quality of the data. More importantly, this transformation exposed the statistical illusions and limitations of census data, weakening stakeholders’ trust in the data and in the Census Bureau itself. This essay examines the epistemic currents of this controversy.

Drawing on theories from Science and Technology Studies (STS) and ethnographic fieldwork, our alum danah boyd, along with Jayshree Sarathry, analyzed the current controversy over differential privacy as a battle over uncertainty, trust, and legitimacy of the Census. They argue that rebuilding trust will require more than technical repairs or improved communication; it will require reconstructing what we identify as a ‘statistical imaginary.’

Quoted from the "Media Summary" in the article:

"This essay seeks to contextualize this controversy through a Science and Technology Studies (STS) lens. Our contributions are three-fold. We begin by laying out the contours of the controversy, revealing epistemic gaps, inflection points, and ongoing debates. We then consider two statistical illusions that complicate how census stakeholders interpret both the disclosure avoidance system and the Census Bureau itself. Finally, we step back to highlight how this controversy is revealing and disrupting what we call a ‘statistical imaginary,’ a collective vision of the census that is produced and performed by the bureau and its stakeholder communities, standardized through legal systems, and held together through statistics. We argue that when the statistical imaginary of objective and neutral census data comes undone, the resulting uncertainty threatens the legitimacy of the Census Bureau, its data, and the democracy that it upholds. To repair this rupture requires more than technical progress or improved communication; it requires reconstituting the statistical imaginary itself."

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