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Census officials seek to reassure rights groups on privacy concerns

Arab-Americans' data was shared

WASHINGTON -- Census officials sought to reassure minority and civil rights groups yesterday that the agency keeps names, addresses, and other personal information confidential from other government departments. Some critics remained skeptical.

The meeting yesterday between Census director Louis Kincannon and the bureau's advisory committees was the first since the agency said in August that it had shared population data about Arab-Americans, but not names or addresses, with a Homeland Security agency.

"What we did was consistent with the law," Kincannon said at the gathering at the agency's Suitland, Md., headquarters outside Washington. "But it also affected perceptions of the Census Bureau, and that's an important problem to us."

Kincannon said that the statistics requested already were available on the Internet, and the bureau issued interim rules that strengthened the review process on data requests from government and law enforcement agencies.

By law, personal information from census forms cannot be released.

But hearing that data are being shared with an agency like Homeland Security's customs bureau "scares people the most" and may lead some to stop answering census surveys, said Karen Narasaki, executive director of the National Asian Pacific American Legal Consortium.

Confidentiality of census data is of paramount importance, said Arturo Vargas, executive director of the National Association of Latino Elected and Appointed Officials. "The circumstances that have developed have shaken my organization's confidence."

Census gave the Bureau of Customs and Border Protection population data on US residents of Arab ancestry by certain zip codes and in many cities with 10,000 or more people, according to documents made public in August through a Freedom of Information Act request by the Electronic Privacy Information Center, a Washington-based advocacy group.

Customs officials said the information was used in part to help determine at what US airports to post signs in languages other than English.

Arab-American groups contend that the information sharing undermined the public's trust in the Census Bureau.

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