USGS Data Management

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Publish/Share > Sensitive Data
U.S. Geological Survey Data Lifecycle Diagram Plan Acquire Process Analyze Preserve Publish/Share Manage Quality Describe (Metadata, Documentation) Backup & Secure The USGS Science Data Lifecycle
U.S. Geological Survey Data Lifecycle Diagram

Sensitive Data

In certain situations, full or even partial data release may not be practical. When such situations arise, they must be handled appropriately.

What Data are Sensitive?

Key Points

  • Will the release of information cause adverse effects?
  • Sensitive data needs periodic review for status.
  • Must care for sensitive information throughout the Data Lifecycle as needed/required.
  • Sensitive data may have different levels of restrictions based on the person/group receiving the data.
  • Will the sensitive information be released in a "fuzzy" state? How will it look? What information will it include?
  • Restricted information should come with an explanation:
    • Data fields should not just be empty.
    • "Location is generalized due to the rarity of the species."
  • Legal implications:
    • Privacy of living individuals
    • Data Sharing and Data License Agreements

Information should be restricted if the release of this information will "result in an 'adverse effect' on the taxon or attribute in question or to a living individual." However, not releasing enough information can also have adverse effects in the decisionmaking process.

What information is labeled "sensitive" can vary by circumstance. There needs to be a balanced decision. Also, the release of information can vary depending on the person or organization in need of the information. The sensitivity level of information should be periodically reviewed. Some may have a short restricted period if the information is waiting on publication or the research is not complete.

Best Practices

  • Wherever possible, environmental information should be freely available to all. Generally, this benefits the environment by increasing awareness, enabling better decisionmaking and reducing risk of damage.
  • In a small number of cases, public access to information can result in environmental harm. It should be recognized that in such cases, availability of information may need to be controlled; although the presumption remains in favor of release and any restrictions should be interpreted rigorously.
  • All data regarded as being sensitive should include a date for review of their sensitivity status, along with documented reasons for the sensitivity status. The date for review may be short or long depending on the nature of the sensitivity. Whenever a data provider receives an application for enhanced access to restricted data they should avoid assuming continued sensitivity and use it as an opportunity to revisit the determination.
  • If the data are to be restricted for distribution, then this should only be done to a copy of the data at the time of their distribution. Data should never be altered, falsified, or deleted from the stored record.
  • Documentation is essential for many reasons, and where data have been restricted or generalized it is important that that information is recorded as metadata that remains with the record.
  • Where data are restricted or generalized for distribution (such as the name of a collector, textual locality information, etc.) this should be documented by replacing with appropriate wording. The field should not be left blank or null.
  • There are extremely strong reasons not to restrict data on related collections (e.g., collector's numbers in sequence, collector's name, etc.), because of the restrictions this places on data quality/data validation procedures and the limits it places on the effectiveness of filtered Push Technologies.
  • Users of sensitive data should respect any and all restrictions of access that the data provider has placed on the data. If granted enhanced access to restricted information users must not compromise or otherwise infringe the confidentiality of such information.
  • Data providers should respect the needs of data users to have access to data and documentation in order to determine the 'fitness for use' of the data, and to ensure that analyses are robust and not misleading.

What the U.S. Geological Survey Manual Requires:

The USGS Manual, Chapter 1100.2 - Editorial Review of U.S. Geological Survey Publication Series covers the publication of sensitive information.

"Regardless of other editing requirements, any publication series information product that contains sensitive issues, including those having implications related to current policy or involving matters of national interest, hazards, security, or potential commercial gain, should receive a comprehensive edit at the discretion of the Science Center Manager or Bureau Approving Official."