25. The sixth United Nations Fundamental Principle of Official Statistics is very clear on statistical confidentiality.
"Individual data collected by statistical agencies for statistical compilation, whether or not they refer to natural or legal persons, are to be strictly confidential and used exclusively for statistical purposes."
Any principles for microdata access must be consistent with this Fundamental Principle.
26. The following principles should be used for managing the confidentiality of microdata. Each is discussed in the following paragraphs.
- Principle 1: It is appropriate for microdata collected for official statistical purposes to be used for statistical analysis to support research as long as confidentiality is protected.
- Principle 2: Microdata should only be made available for statistical purposes.
- Principle 3: Provision of microdata should be consistent with legal and other necessary arrangements that ensure that confidentiality of the released microdata is protected.
- Principle 4: The procedures for researcher access to microdata, as well as the uses and users of microdata, should be transparent and publicly available.
27. Making microdata available for research is not in contradiction with the sixth UN Fundamental Principle as long as it is not possible to identify data referring to an individual. Principle 1 does not constitute an obligation to provide microdata. The National Statistical Office should be the one to decide whether to provide microdata or not. There may be other concerns (for example, quality) that make it inappropriate to provide access to microdata. Or there may be specific persons or institutions to whom it would be inappropriate to provide microdata.
28. For Principle 2, a distinction has to be made between statistical or analytical uses and administrative uses. In the case of statistical or analytical use, the aim is to derive statistics that refer to a group (be it of persons or legal entities). In the case of administrative use, the aim is to derive information about a particular person or legal entity to make a decision that may bring benefit or harm to the individual. For example, some requests for data may be legal (a court order) but inconsistent with this principle. It is in the interest of public confidence in the official statistical system that these requests are refused. If the use of the microdata is incompatible with statistical or analytical purposes, then microdata access should not be provided. Ethics committees or a similar arrangement may assist in situations where there is uncertainty whether to provide access or not.
29. Researchers are accessing microdata for research purposes but to support this research they may need to compile statistical aggregations of various forms, compile statistical distributions, fit statistical models, or analyse statistical differences between sub-populations. These uses would be consistent with statistical purposes. To the extent that this is how the microdata are being used, it could also be said to support research purposes.
30. With respect to Principle 3, legal arrangements to protect confidentiality should be in place before any microdata are released. However, the legal arrangements have to be complemented with administrative and technical measures to regulate the access to microdata and to ensure that individual data cannot be disclosed. The existence and visibility of such arrangements (whether in law or supplementary regulations, ordinances, etc.) are necessary to increase public confidence that microdata will be used appropriately. Legal arrangements are clearly preferable but in some countries this may not be possible and some other form of administrative arrangement should be put in place. The legal (or other arrangements) should also be cleared with the privacy authorities of countries where they exist before they are established by law. If such authorities do not exist, there may be NGOs who have a "watchdog" role on privacy matters. It would be sensible to get their support for any legal or other arrangements, or at least to address any serious concerns they might have.
31. In some countries, authorising legislation does not exist. At a minimum, release of microdata should be supported by some form of authority. However, an authorising legislation is a preferable approach.
32. Principle 4 is important to increase public confidence that microdata are being used appropriately and to show that decisions about microdata release are taken on an objective basis. It is up to the NSO to decide whether, how and to whom microdata can be released. But their decisions should be transparent. The NSO web site is an effective way of ensuring compliance and also for providing information on how to access research reports based on released microdata.