Public and Private Data

When searching for data, you also need to be informed about debates regarding public and private data. Not only do these debates influence the kinds of data you might be able to legally use in your visualizations, but they also raise deeper ethical issues about the extent to which anyone should be able to collect or circulate private information about individuals. This section offers our general observations on these debates, based primarily on our context in the United States. Since we are not lawyers (thank goodness!), please consult with legal experts for advice about your specific case if needed.

The first debate asks: To what extent should anyone be allowed to collect data about private individuals? Several critics of “big data” worry that governments are becoming more like a totalitarian “Big Brother” as they collect more data about individual citizens in the digital age. In the United States, concerns mounted in 2013 when whistleblower Edward Snowden disclosed how the National Security Agency conducted global surveillance using US citizen email and phone records provided by telecommunications companies. Shoshana Zuboff, a Harvard Business School professor and author of The Age of Surveillance Capitalism, warns of an equal threat posed by corporations that collect and commodify massive amounts of individually-identifiable data for profit.10 Due to the rise of digital commerce, powerful technology companies own data that you and others consider to be private:

Some point out that “big data” collected by large corporations can offer public benefits. For example, Apple shared its aggregated mobility data collected from iPhone users to help public health officials compare which populations stayed home rather than travel during the Covid pandemic. But others point out that corporations are largely setting their own terms for how they collect data and what they can do with it. Although California has begun to implement its Consumer Privacy Act in 2020, which promises to allow individuals the right to review and delete the data that companies collect about them, US state and federal government has not fully entered this policy arena. If you work with data that was collected from individuals by public or private organizations, learn about these controversies to help you make wise and ethical choices on what to include in your visualizations.

The second question is: When our government collects data, to what extent should it be publicly available? In the United States, the 1966 Freedom of Information Act and its subsequent amendments have sought to open access to information in the federal government, with the view that increased transparency would promote public scrutiny and pressure on officials to make positive changes. In addition, state governments operate under their own freedom of information laws, sometimes called “open records” or “sunshine laws.” When people say they’ve submitted a “FOI,” it means they’ve sent a written request to a government agency for information that they believe should be public under the law. But federal and state FOIA laws are complex, and courts have interpreted cases in different ways over time, as summarized in the Open Government Guide by the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, and also by the National Freedom of Information Coalition. Sometimes government agencies quickly agree and comply with a FOI request, while other times they may delay or reject it, which may pressure the requester to attempt to resolve the issue through time-consuming litigation. Around the world, over 100 nations have their own version of freedom of information laws, with the oldest being Sweden’s 1766 Freedom of the Press Act, but these laws vary widely.

In most cases, individual-level data collected by US federal and state governments is considered private, except in cases where our governmental process has determined that a broader interest is served by making it public. To illustrate this distinction, let’s begin with two cases where US federal law protects the privacy of individual-level data:

  • Patient-level health data is generally protected under the Privacy Rule of the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act, commonly known as HIPAA. In order for public health officials to track broad trends about illness in the population, individual patient data must be aggregated into larger anonymized datasets in ways that protect specific people’s confidentiality.

  • Similarly, student-level education data is generally protected under the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act, commonly known as FERPA. Public education officials regularly aggregate individual student records into larger anonymized public datasets to track the broad progress of schools, districts, and states, without revealing individually-identifiable data.

On the other hand, here are three cases where government has ruled that the public interest is served by making individual-level data widely available:

  • Individual contributions to political candidates are public information in the US Federal Election Commission database, and related databases by non-profit organizations, such as Follow The Money by the National Institute on Money in Politics and Open Secrets by the Center for Responsive Politics. The latter two sites describe more details about donations submitted through political action committees and controversial exceptions to campaign finance laws. Across the US, state-level political contribution laws vary widely, and these public records are stored in separate databases. For example, anyone can search the Connecticut Campaign Reporting Information System to find donations made by the first author to state-level political campaigns.

  • Individual property ownership records are public, and increasingly hosted online by many local governments. A privately-funded company compiled this US public records directory with links to county and municipal property records, where available. For example, anyone can search the property assessment database for the Town of West Hartford, Connecticut to find property owned by the first author, its square footage, and purchase price.

  • Individual salaries for officers of tax-exempt organizations are public, which they are required to file on Internal Revenue Service (IRS) 990 forms each year. For example, anyone can search 990 forms on ProPublica’s Nonprofit Explorer, and view the salary and other compensation of the top officers of the first author’s employer and the second author’s alma mater, Trinity College in Hartford, Connecticut.

Social and political pressures are continually changing the boundary over what types of individual-level data collected by government should be made publicly available. For example, the Black Lives Matter movement has gradually made more individual-level data about violence by police officers more widely available. For example, in 2001 the State of New Jersey required local police departments to document any “use of force” by officers, whether minor or major, such as firing their gun. But no one could easily search these paper forms until a team of journalists from NJ Advance Media submitted over 500 public records requests and compiled The Force Report digital database, where anyone can look up individual officers and investigate patterns of violent behavior. Similarly, a team of ProPublica journalists created The NYPD Files database, which now allows anyone to search closed cases of civilian complaints against New York City police officers, by name or precinct, for patterns of substantiated allegations.

Everyone who works with data needs to get informed about key debates over what should be public or private, become active in policy discussions about whose interests are being served, and contribute to making positive change. In the next section, you’ll learn about ethical choices you’ll need to make when working with sensitive individual-level data.


  1. Shoshana Zuboff, The Age of Surveillance Capitalism: The Fight for a Human Future at the New Frontier of Power (PublicAffairs, 2019), https://www.google.com/books/edition/The_Age_of_Surveillance_Capitalism/lRqrDQAAQBAJ.↩︎

  2. Geoffrey A. Fowler, “Goodbye, Chrome: Google’s Web Browser Has Become Spy Software,” Washington Post, June 21, 2019, https://www.washingtonpost.com/technology/2019/06/21/google-chrome-has-become-surveillance-software-its-time-switch/↩︎

  3. Geoffrey A. Fowler, “Alexa Has Been Eavesdropping on You This Whole Time,” Washington Post, May 6, 2019, https://www.washingtonpost.com/technology/2019/05/06/alexa-has-been-eavesdropping-you-this-whole-time/↩︎

  4. Geoffrey A. Fowler, “Facebook Will Now Show You Exactly How It Stalks You — Even When You’re Not Using Facebook,” Washington Post, January 28, 2020, https://www.washingtonpost.com/technology/2020/01/28/off-facebook-activity-page/↩︎