Census Data Not So Confidential After All


The current $350 million ad campaign for the 2010 Census, including the much-maligned $2.5 million Super Bowl spots, urges individuals to “Tell your story.” The Census Bureau is particularly eager for minorities and illegal immigrants to do so, as they are traditionally believed to be the most undercounted.

Yet widespread non-compliance, especially among those most likely to be discriminated against by a majority, may not be rooted strictly in the “ignorance” the ads are designed to overcome. History – including very recent history – shows that the information provided to the Census can be used against you.

The most recent examples occurred in 2002 and 2003, when the Census Bureau turned over information it had collected about Arab-Americans to Homeland Security.

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Data from the 1940 Census was used to intern Japanese, Italian, and German Americans following the U.S.’s entry into the war, and to monitor and persecute others who escaped internment. In addition to providing geographic information to the War Department, the Census Bureau released the name, address, age, sex, citizenship status and occupation of Japanese Americans in the Washington, D.C., area to the Treasury Department in response to an unspecified threat against President Franklin Roosevelt in 1943.

There may well be other instances of such data sharing of which we remain unaware, as the full scope of the personal information released during World War II has only recently been brought to light.

Thus, while the Census Bureau assures us that “your confidentiality is protected. Title 13 requires the Census Bureau to keep all information about you and all other respondents strictly confidential,” these exceptions negate such assurances. Of course, the release of the “strictly confidential” data was also perfectly legal: during World War II, under the terms of the Second War Powers Act, and more recently, under the terms of the USA PATRIOT Act, now extended by the Obama administration.

In preparation for this year’s census, 140,000 workers were hired to collect GPS readings for every front door in the nation. Such pinpoint precision will certainly simplify the process of locating any individual or group that may be identified as a threat to “national security” in the future. Remember, for example, the 1976 Senate Report in which 26,000 Americans were slated for roundup by the FBI in the event of a national emergency at the height of the Cold War. Now that the U.S. Government’s Terrorist Watchlist has exceeded one million, the GPS data acquired could be instrumental in accomplishing such a roundup.

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March 11, 2010