Census Time Heightens Privacy Concerns

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When a census
worker visited Oliver Sarle’s home in Warwick, R.I., the crusty
farmer refused to answer a series of questions, including how much
revenue his crops had generated the previous year and how many gallons
of milk his cows had produced.

Sarle was charged
with a misdemeanor: not answering questions posed by an official
representative of the census. A Rhode Island judge sided with the
government, ruling that the "information required by the statute
to be collected must be assumed to be important and necessary for
the public service."

The year was
1890, but the same sentiment is alive today. A similar distrust
of government data collection, coupled with a wariness of the privacy
and security threats raised by an extensive electronic compilation
of personal data, has given rise to concerns about the procedures
used in the 2010 census.

A Zogby poll
released
last week reveals that 49 percent of Americans are not confident
that their data will be kept confidential, while only 46 percent
believe it will be. Some illegal immigrants worry
that their census forms will be shared with Homeland Security and
lead to deportation. And conservatives including Ron Paul, the former
Republican presidential candidate, say
questions like race and homeownership have no basis in the U.S.
Constitution; a YouTube video making those arguments has received
1.7 million views since it was posted last month.

"The questions
and concerns are legitimate," says Jay Stanley, a spokesman
for the ACLU’s
Technology and Liberty Program
. "If they’re increasing,
it’s because a lot of people are more sensitized to privacy. They
realize that if you share information with one organization, it
doesn’t necessarily stay with that organization. People are becoming
more sophisticated about these things."

Two new concerns
have arisen since the census of 2000, which prompted then-Senate
Majority Leader Trent Lott, a Republican, to suggest that Americans
might want to skip questions they thought were prying. The first
is a new mail-tracking
system
provided by the Post Office that can identify
when individual census forms have been delivered and highlight when
addresses have changed. Then there’s the growing interest in what’s
called "re-identification," meaning extracting identities
from anonymous data sets such as those released
by the Census Bureau. Researchers have pulled off that sort of trick
with data released by AOL
and Netflix.

The standard
2010 Census form, be sent to virtually every American household,
asks
about sex, race, age, phone number, and address. A subset of Americans
also will receive a 14-page
form (PDF)
that is sent out every year and is much more intrusive:
it asks about relationships, rent and mortgage costs, the value
of the home, languages spoken at home, "emotional condition,"
job absences, and sources of income. Anyone not answering can be
fined.

For its part,
the Census Bureau insists
that the information it collects will remain private. "We depend
on your cooperation and trust, and promise to protect the confidentiality
of your information," the agency says. In addition, federal
law
says that any Census employee who "publishes or communicates"
confidential information can be fined up to $5,000 or imprisoned
for up to five years.

Census data
shared in WWII

Skeptics point
out that Congress may alter that law at any time, or a president
could claim that his wartime powers as commander in chief trump
prohibitions against disclosure. And in fact, the Census Bureau
and Congress have lifted the veil of confidentiality before.

During World
War II, the Census Bureau divulged confidential data about Japanese-Americans
that may have helped in efforts to force them into interment camps.
"We’re by law required to keep confidential information by
individuals," Census Director J.C. Capt said
in a January 1942 staff meeting, using the ethnic terminology of
the time. "But in the end, if the defense authorities found
200 Japs missing and they wanted the names of the Japs in that area,
I would give them further means of checking individuals."

Two months
later, Congress approved a law called the Second
War Powers Act
requiring precisely that. It eliminated existing
confidentiality requirements and ordered the Census Bureau to make
"any information or data" it collected on Americans available
to other government agencies. Any bureau employee not cooperating
faced criminal penalties.

Much of today’s
understanding of these disclosures comes from William
Seltzer
, a senior research scholar at Fordham University, and
Margo Anderson,
a history professor at the University of Wisconsin, who have delved
into the bureau’s occasionally murky past. Their 2007
paper
reveals that the Secret Service asked for and obtained
a list of "all known Japanese" in the Washington, D.C.
area, including their names, ages, employers, and home addresses.

The bureau
also agreed to give "certain confidential records" to
the FBI if it was reimbursed for its costs. After the Second War
Powers Act expired in March 1947, the FBI continued to press for
data, but with less success. "Efforts by the Justice Department
and numerous federal regularity agencies to breach statistical confidentiality
at the Census Bureau and elsewhere in the federal statistical system
continued for at least another two decades," Seltzer and Anderson
write.

The possibility
of history repeating is one motivation for critics of the 2010 census,
forms for which began
to arrive last week
.

Mary Theroux,
a vice president at the free-market Independent
Institute
in Oakland, Calif., wrote an op-ed
for the Tallahassee Democrat newspaper a few days ago arguing that
history "shows that the information provided to the Census
can be used against you."

After it appeared,
Theroux told CNET, it led "to the Florida governor’s office
contacting the Census Bureau to ask if what I said was true. Needless
to say, the Census Bureau wasn’t happy about it."

Since the last
census, documents
obtained by the Electronic Privacy Information Act in 2004 show
that the Census Bureau provided the Department of Homeland Security
with statistical information about people who identified themselves
as being of Arab ancestry. And examples
from Europe
show that census data can, in some cases, be misused
by governments that wish to target ethnic or religious minorities.

Read
the rest of the article

March
23, 2010

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