As noted in earlier chapters, information about organizations is not protected by the Privacy Act of 1974 (P.L. 93–579). If a statistical agency that has identifiable information about organizations is not governed by agency-specific confidentiality legislation, it must rely primarily on exemption 4 of the Freedom of Information Act (P.L. 89–487), which covers “trade secrets and commercial or financial information obtained from a person [interpreted to include legal persons—such as business organizations] and privileged or confidential,” to deny public requests for access
to identifiable records for organizations. The Freedom of Information Act, however, does not provide authority to deny requests from other parts of the government.
Most of the major federal statistical agencies have some form of legislation that allows them to protect the confidentiality of data on organizations that they collect and process. One exception is the Bureau of Labor Statistics, which, as explained in Chapter 5, has relied on a combination of regulations and lower court decisions to protect data that it obtains from businesses, either directly or through state employment security agencies.
For most of the economic censuses and surveys conducted by the Census Bureau, the confidentiality provisions in Section 9 of Title 13 of the U.S. Code apply. Those provisions protect the confidentiality of respondents’ file copies of census and survey report forms, as well as the originals submitted to the Census Bureau. They do not apply to reports collected from state and local governments, because those reports, by their nature, contain only data available, at least in theory, to anyone. They also do not apply to the data compiled from official import and export documents in the Census Bureau’s foreign trade statistics program. Section 301(a) of Title 13 makes the export data confidential unless the secretary of commerce determines that it is in the national interest to disclose them. The import data are not covered by Title 13 because they are collected by the Customs Service and only compiled by the Census Bureau. As a matter of policy, the import and export data are published in extensive detail by commodity and other variables, but without explicit identification of importers and exporters. The majority of data cells in the most detailed tabulations are based on fewer than five transactions.
Some additional aspects of confidentiality legislation and its effects on the ability of federal statistical agencies to protect data on organizations and to share or release their data for statistical and research purposes are discussed in connection with four case studies presented below.