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Nebraska is one of 16 states to back Alabama's challenge to Census privacy tool
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Nebraska is one of 16 states to back Alabama's challenge to Census privacy tool

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16 states back Alabama's challenge to Census privacy tool

FILE - This March 19, 2020, file photo, shows an envelope containing a 2020 census letter mailed to a U.S. resident. On Wednesday, March 24, 2021, a federal judge dismissed a lawsuit filed by the state of Ohio that tried to get the U.S. Census Bureau to provide data used for drawing congressional and legislative districts ahead of its planned release. (AP Photo/Matt Rourke, File)

Where you live can affect your health. And now there's a new way to measure the health of your community: a CDC data tool called Places. It's an online, hyper-local look at health factors across the country. "This gives you a whole new view of the data in Places," said Karen Hacker, director at the CDCs National Center for Chronic Disease Prevention & Health Promotion. The online interactive map tracks 27 chronic disease factors, like heart disease, diabetes and health insurance. Type in your ZIP code and you can compare the prevalence of diseases in your location to other neighborhoods or the country as a whole. "The variation is just sometimes so extreme, you know, you can have literally communities that are adjacent to one another where the rates of heart disease range for something like 1.5% to 36%. And we're talking in some cases blocks away from each other," said Hacker.While Places doesn't track the coronavirus, it can help estimate which neighborhoods have high risk factors for COVID-19, like heart disease and diabetes which could help with vaccine distribution.   "You could find pockets within cities where you might have really high prevalence of underlying conditions. So public health practitioners could use these data in that way to target," said George Hobor, senior program officer at Robert Wood Johnson Foundation. They collaborated with the CDC for the Places project.  While Places looks at local health challenges and risk behaviors, it doesn't currently include race and ethnicity data sets. "It's not the only data source you're probably going to need," said Hacker. "You may use census data, for example, which will give you information on your race and ethnicity and age breakdowns." Places is another tool in the arsenal to help address health disparities, and it's available now.  "Hopefully it will also mean that health department directors and community leaders will be able to use resources to start to change the way those disparities look and get us towards health equity," said Hacker. 

ORLANDO, Fla. — Sixteen states are backing Alabama's challenge to a statistical method the U.S. Census Bureau is using for the first time to protect the privacy of people who participated in the 2020 census, the nation's once-a-decade head count that determines political power and funding.

A federal judge Monday allowed the 16 states to file a brief in support of a lawsuit brought by Alabama last month. The suit seeks to stop the Census Bureau from applying the method known as “differential privacy" to the numbers that will be used for redrawing congressional and legislative seats later this year.

The states supporting Alabama's challenge are Alaska, Arkansas, Florida, Kentucky, Louisiana, Maine, Mississippi, Montana, Nebraska, New Mexico, Ohio, Oklahoma, South Carolina, Texas, Utah and West Virginia. Maine and New Mexico have Democratic attorney generals, while all the other states have Republican ones.

A three-judge panel in federal court in Alabama is hearing the case, which could go directly to the Supreme Court if appealed.

Differential privacy adds mathematical “noise,” or intentional errors, to the data to obscure any given individual’s identity while still providing statistically valid information.

Bureau officials say the change is needed to prevent data miners from matching individuals to confidential details that have been rendered anonymous in the massive data release, which is expected as early as August. It will be applied to race, age and other demographic information in geographic areas within each state.

“It’s a statistical technique that is intended to protect people’s privacy. … There can be privacy hacks today that technologically weren’t possible 10 years ago,” said Department of Commerce Secretary Gina Raimondo last week during a White House briefing. “So in order for us to keep up with that and protect people’s privacy, we have to implement new techniques, and this is one of those new techniques.”

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The Commerce Department oversees the Census Bureau.

The 16 states supporting Alabama said that differential privacy's use in the redistricting numbers will make the figures inaccurate for all states, especially at small geographic levels, and the Census Bureau could use other methods to protect people’s privacy.

Differential privacy “would make accurate redistricting at the local level impossible," violating the constitutional obligation that districts have equal populations, and it could harm long-running research on health and safety, their brief said.

“Because differential privacy creates false information — by design — it prevents the states from accessing municipal-level information crucial to performing this essential government function," the states said. “And the distorting impact of differential privacy will likely fall hardest on some of the most vulnerable populations — rural areas and minority racial groups."

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A pair of civil rights groups also raised concerns, saying an examination of test Census data showed differential privacy produced numbers that were less accurate for determining if a racial or ethnic minority group formed a majority in a particular community, potentially diluting their local political power. Democratic-led lawmakers in California, the nation's largest state, also raised concerns about differential privacy in a recent letter to President Joe Biden's chief of staff, Ronald Klain.

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