(CN) – After a count of more than 331 million people across 3.8 million square miles all the while dodging wildfires, hurricanes and a pandemic, the U.S. Census Bureau is months away from fully releasing the data that will parcel out political power in the states and direct the flow of government funding for years to come.
But on Monday, a panel of three federal judges in Montgomery, Alabama, will decide whether to step into the process after the state sued last month based on claims that the bureau’s rollout of the 2020 redistricting data was too slow and the steps the bureau has taken to protect respondents' personally identifiable information has altered the data so much that it's unusable for redrawing political maps.
Alabama said it collaborated with the agency for the last five years to get the data out on time. “Alabama upheld its end of the deal, but the bureau has decided—unilaterally—that it will instead submit data to the states by September 30, 2021,” the state's lawsuit says.
The state is supposed to pass a redistricting plan by May 18.
Furthermore, the Census Bureau plans to use a technique called differential privacy to make sure no one in the age of powerful computing and big data can figure out what answers someone gave the agency by triangulating their answers or analyzing other datasets.
The agency's privacy protections have seen a long evolution from the early years when all the answers were posted in public. Differential privacy is a 15-year-old method that defines privacy mathematically, analyzing the dataset and making sure any one person’s answers don’t stand out. This is done by tweaking some of the answers, a process the National Institute of Standards and Technology compared to static on a radio in a 2019 video.
Alabama says the fuzzing of the data will lead to inaccurate congressional districts, which will lead to lawsuits over how the maps were drawn. It asks the judges in the Middle District of Alabama to make the Census Bureau use the privacy techniques it used in the 2010 census, arguing that seemed to work just fine.
“There have been no reports that anyone outside the bureau has gained access to the responses of a particular identified person from the released 2010 data,” the complaint states.
Alabama asks the judges to come to the conclusion that differential privacy violates statutes and runs afoul of constitutional rights, and to prevent the Census Bureau from using the technique in the future.
The bureau said in its response brief the two questions before the federal court in Montgomery are “two large obstacles to the successful operation of the 2020 decennial census." Thanks to delays caused by the pandemic, for instance, the slow rollout was drive by factors outside its control, the agency said.
It further argued it was important to get the count right, as it would determine how political power is allocated. “It underpins our nation’s representative democracy,” the brief states,
The state’s request to stop the Census Bureau from using differential privacy “raises significant concerns,” the agency argues, as it would still need to somehow protect respondents’ individual replies.
But the process with how it protected the responses to the 2010 census did not keep up with evolving technology, the bureau said, and it made a promise to every resident of the United States that their answers would be protected.
If it broke that promise, “future census response rates would undoubtedly fall, and the accuracy of future censuses would suffer,” the bureau said.
The case is being heard by a three-judge panel because of the differential privacy claims, and any appeal will go directly to the U.S. Supreme Court. Chief U.S. Circuit Judge William Pryor Jr. of the 11th Circuit appointed the panel hearing the case: U.S. District Judges Austin Huffaker Jr. and Emily Marks and U.S. Circuit Judge Kevin Newsom, all appointed by Donald Trump.