Census Data “Strictly Confidential”?

I saw a huge new billboard in San Francisco the other day—part of the $350 million ad campaign supporting this year’s $14 billion Census—picturing an American Indian in full regalia against a black background, apparently in the process of worshiping the sky, with the stylized text “Tell your story.”

If he’s wise, he might want to think twice about thereby providing information that can be used against him.

As examples, 1940 Census data was released and used to locate and intern Americans of Japanese, Italian and German descent, as outlined in these stories from Scientific American, “Confirmed: The U.S. Census Bureau Gave Up Names of Japanese-Americans in WW II: Government documents show that the agency handed over names and addresses to the Secret Service,” and USA Today, “Papers show Census role in WWII camps.”

The Census Bureau played a role in the confinement of more than 100,000 Americans of Japanese descent who were rounded up and held in internment camps, many until the war ended in 1945. In 1942, the Census turned over general statistics about where Japanese-Americans lived to the War Department. It was acting legally under the Second War Powers Act, which allowed the sharing of information for national security.

The newly released documents [further] show that in 1943, the Census complied with a request by the Treasury Department to turn over names of individuals of Japanese ancestry in the Washington, D.C., area because of an unspecified threat against President Franklin Roosevelt. The list contained names, addresses and data on the age, sex, citizenship status and occupation of Japanese-Americans in the area. [emphasis added]

And more recently, in 2002,

the Census turned over information it had collected about Arab-Americans … to Homeland Security.

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,” the exceptions above negate such assurances. And, of course, their release of the “strictly confidential” data was perfectly legal: during World War II, under the terms of the Second War Powers Act, and more recently under the terms of the still-in-effect USA PATRIOT Act.

Meanwhile, the data is also shared a little more broadly than advertised. Stanford University recently joined UC Berkeley, Duke, the University of Michigan, UCLA, and others, in having its very own census data center. As the director of the new center explained, “The Census Bureau is very interested in making the centers more accessible to scholars who can use the data they provide.”

The data available at the centers goes far beyond what’s released publicly by the Census Bureau. While demographic information on such things as age, income and racial background may only be broken down by county or city in the public information, researchers at the center can find that information for areas as small as neighborhoods of a few city blocks.

And, as Henry Brady, dean of the Goldman School of Public Policy at UC Berkeley and principal investigator for the California Census Research Data Centers helpfully added: “We’re trying to make centers where lots of federal agencies will let us use their data …”

Of course, they all swear that the data is held under the strictest security, and will only be used for innocuous projects like “government programs and solutions to our problems.”

I guess the degree to which this is a perceived good depends upon how highly one esteems the “solutions” government programs like internment and renditioning have offered to date.

One might thus consider following the advice of former Senate majority leader Trent Lott, who urged people to skip any Census questions they felt violated their privacy. But fair warning, legislation was recently passed, “changing the fine for anyone over 18 years old who refuses or willfully neglects to complete the questionnaire or answer questions posed by census takers from a fine of not more than $100 to not more than $5,000.”

Mary L. G. Theroux is Senior Vice President of the Independent Institute. Having received her A.B. in economics from Stanford University, she is Managing Director of Lightning Ventures, L.P., a San Francisco Bay Area investment firm, former Chairman of the Board of Advisors for the Salvation Army of both San Francisco and Alameda County, and Vice President of the C.S. Lewis Society of California.
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