• 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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