Open Data Policy Guidelines » Guideline 7

7. Appropriately safeguard sensitive information

A well-crafted open data policy is complementary to pre-existing legislation and directives about access to public information (see Provision 2 for more details), which means that it can integrate pre-existing public access law exemptions for information that is sensitive for privacy, security or other reasons. In addition, the nature of online access for bulk information can produce its own privacy, security and liability concerns. Individual-level data requires special scrutiny if it refers to private individuals who are not serving as government vendors. However, information that may provoke concern if released at the individual-level can often be released in aggregate and thereby provide some degree of public information and value. Any exemptions must be carefully crafted to exclude only the most necessary categories of information. Valid privacy and security concerns should be addressed through provisions that recognize the public interest in determining whether information will be disclosed or not. For example, rather than saying “information relating to X topic is exempt from disclosure,” provisions should require that “information relating to X topic is exempt from disclosure if the potential for harm outweighs the public interest in disclosure.” Public interest here does not mean public attention, but instead refers to interests like democratic accountability, justice and effective oversight.

Any exemptions to data release should be crafted in a way that does not cut out access to information for researchers. Information that might be too sensitive for release to the public online can often be used by academic or nonprofit researchers who have agreed to protect sensitive information and not release it, except in aggregate form or in other ways that limit the potential for harm. This kind of release, with the research and insights it empowers, would benefit the interests of accountability, justice and oversight. Balance testing should still be used to ensure privileged information-sharing is not given priority over full public release when the public interest outweighs the potential for harm.

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Examples of language for this guideline:

Here are examples of the language for this guideline as included in policies on this site. Please note that the selections of text below are imperfect, and you should check out their source policies to read them in context.