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U.S. Census questions put your privacy at risk

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By ROBYN BLUMNER

© St. Petersburg Times, published March 26, 2000


Just like nearly everyone else in America my census form arrived in the mail earlier this month. According to the Constitution, the purpose of the census is so that congressional districts can be properly apportioned. To that end, I was glad to fulfill my patriotic duty by providing our government with information on the number of people residing in my household.

But that wasn't all the form asked.

I received the short form, so wasn't bothered by such government-needs-to-know queries as whether I take a trolley car to work. Still, I was asked about my race and the relationship of the people in my household. Questions that are none of the government's business and that I shouldn't be required by law to answer.

So I didn't. I am a census scofflaw.

The U.S. Census Bureau is spending $167-million in an advertising blitz to try and better the abysmally low 1990 compliance rate of 65 percent. It is printing assistance forms in 49 languages and sending armies of workers to try to track down the homeless and illegal immigrants. But the bureau is ignoring the obvious. Americans who value their privacy and are inherently suspicious of government might not be filling out the census because the questions are too invasive and serve a political purpose with which they don't agree. Pare it down to the constitutionally required question of how many people reside in a household and compliance might soar.

Take the question on race. For the first time the forms don't force Americans to pigeonhole themselves into narrow racial categories. Instead, people can check more than one racial group, more accurately reflecting a country where, as of 1990, there were more than 1.46-million interracial marriages. Of course, this effort to bring some truth to the census exploded in controversy, with civil rights groups lining up against the change. The Clinton administration, responding to the pressure, agreed that anyone checking white and a minority group will be counted as a member of the minority group.

Why were groups such as the NAACP and the Mexican American Legal Defense and Education Fund so eager to reinstitute the "one drop rule" and count people who admit to having a drop of non-white blood as minority? Because the information on race is used for all sorts of race-based affirmative action and government assistance programs, including the development of federal affirmative-action guidelines, minority business set-asides and college admissions preferences.

Checking the race boxes on the census form assists these programs, yet the majority of Americans eschew race-based quotas and preferences. Could there be a disconnect here?

Then there's the privacy issue. The Census Bureau promises up and down that it will keep your personal information confidential and will only share statistics. But even aggregated data, when finely parsed, can be highly compromising.

While the Census Bureau didn't release the names of Japanese-Americans during World War II, the bureau did lend a hand to our government in tracking them down. According to a new research report, the bureau's complicity assisted in the rounding up of 120,000 Japanese-Americans who were then sent to camps for the duration of the war.

The paper, titled "After Pearl Harbor: The Proper Role of Population Data Systems in Time of War," says in days following Pearl Harbor the bureau put out detailed reports on the Japanese population in the country, including where pockets could be found. J.C. Capt, the director of the Census Bureau at the time, explained: "We didn't want to wait for the declaration of war. On Monday morning we put our people to work on the Japanese thing." The paper indicates bureau disclosures to the War Department were so exacting that it provided the number of Japanese people living on various city blocks.

What's even more troubling is that a block-by-block report on racial make-up wasn't generally available then, but it is today. Now, with computer assistance, the bureau's databases can organize "nonidentifiable" information in ever-smaller nuggets and make it available in no time. Suppose that, following a terrorist attack, the Defense Department wanted to see where Arab-Americans lived. Where would it turn?

There's a reason the law prohibits the census from forcing people to disclose their religious affiliation. Matters of faith should be private and a compendium of where religious minorities lived could later be used as a tool for repression. But if that information is deemed too intimate and potentially compromising, then so should questions of race, ancestry, household relationships and physical and mental health.

By not answering invasive questions on the census I risk a fine of $100. That comes to ten dollars a year to protect my privacy -- well worth the price.

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