The U.S. Census Bureau's chief is defending a new tool meant to protect the privacy of people participating in the statistical agency's questionnaires against calls to abandon it by prominent researchers who claim it jeopardizes the usefulness of numbers that are the foundation of the nation’s data infrastructure.

The tool known as differential privacy “was selected as the best solution available” against efforts by outside groups or individuals to piece together the identities of participants in the bureau’s censuses and surveys by using third-party data and powerful computers, U.S. Census Bureau Director Robert Santos said in a letter last week.

Concerns about privacy have grown in recent years as cyberattacks and threats of personal data being used for the wrong reasons have become more commonplace.

Several prominent state demographers and academic researchers had asked the statistical agency in August to abandon using differential privacy on future annual population estimates, which are used in the distribution of $1.5 trillion in federal funding each year, and future releases of American Community Survey data, which provide the most comprehensive information on how people live in the U.S.

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