The Census and Privacy

April 27th, 2010

GovernmentLast month I filled out the census form sent by the US government. Mandated by the Constitution and used to determine things like the number of Congressional members for each state and the division of federal funds, it’s important to get as many people counted as possible. (In fact, based on the 2000 census, my home state of Colorado qualified for an extra House member, bringing our total up to nine.)

But some people refused to fill out the form, citing privacy concerns. The requested information was minimal, but it still goes beyond the “Enumeration” required by the Constitution, asking for such things as your name and ethnicity. When responding to privacy issues, census officials always refer to the laws prohibiting release of census data until 70 years have passed. But these officials seem to forget it’s the government that made those laws, and the government can always change them should the need arise. The Constitution has no provisions for the privacy of census data.

In fact, something along these lines occurred in 1941. Four days after the Pearl Harbor attack, the government used Census data to help round up Americans of Japanese descent, who were placed in internment camps. More recently, the Census Bureau compiled reports of Americans of Arab descent for use by Homeland Security. (They gave population by city and ZIP code.)

So the net result is that census privacy can be broken, given sufficient cause. Does this mean you shouldn’t fill out the form? You’ll have to determine the answer for that one yourself.


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