Much of policy making surrounding personal information is premised on the notion that government has a key role in the protection of sensitive data. Data can be called sensitive because it falls into a category of data presumed worthy of concealment, such as health or genetic information. Data can also be considered sensitive when it concerns groups of people, such as children and the elderly, whose vulnerabilities merit special protection. Finally, data can be called sensitive if it falls at the intersection of norms regarding the importance of protecting certain data from disclosure and certain people from harm: the genetic data of children merits special protection, for example, because genetic data is subject to concealment and because children are vulnerable. There is a politics of sensitive data that seldom gets the attention it deserves. From a political perspective we might want some data to be considered sensitive in order to limit access to it, keeping it out of the hands of people whom we fear will use it in support of policies with which we do not agree. Or, we might want certain data not to be deemed sensitive, so that it will be available for use to further policies with which we do agree. The debates over racial privacy in the United States is the perfect context for exploring the politics of sensitive data.
“Sensitive data” is not a Platonic essence. It is a pragmatic concept. We consider information sensitive in a given place and time because of the harm to welfare or dignity we believe its collection, use, or disclosure entails. Moreover, as citizens and consumers in a certain time and place, we label data held by government and businesses as sensitive to reflect concerns about whether it is accurate, whether it is secure, and how long it will be retained. In the early twentieth century, the fact that a person was born to an unmarried mother might have been considered a sensitive piece of information, one that could result in a diminished social status; contemporary Americans no longer look down on children born outside of marriage, and do not regard legitimacy status as sensitive information.
If you ask the typical American today to list the broad categories of sensitive information, they might start with information of the sort contained in health, financial,