Commentary

Census Confidentiality? The Check’s is in the Mail

Some promises shouldn’t be taken seriously. “The check is in the mail,” or “Of course I’ll respect you in the morning,” or “I won’t raise taxes.” To that list should be added, “Your answers to census questions will remain completely confidential.”

Already this census season, many of homeless people have refused to divulge personal information to census takers. Some of the homeless have fears that their personal plight will be revealed to far-away relatives. That intuitive distrust of the Census Bureau may be valid.

During the 1940 census, American citizens of Japanese descent dutifully noted their forebears’ ethnicity on the census form. Those Japanese-Americans believed the Census Bureau assurance that their answers would remain secret. But in 1942 the federal government began rounding up citizens who were of Japanese descent and imprisoning them in concentration camps. How did the Justice Department know where to find Japanese-Americans? The Census Bureau told them.

The bureau kept its promise of confidentiality, it never disclosed any individual’s name and address. Instead, the bureau told the Justice Department’s concentration camp office when census tracts (small neighborhoods) had high proportions of citizens with Japanese ancestry. Knowing which neighborhoods to concentrate on, the concentration camp officials descended for house-to-house searches.

Today illegal or recently legalized aliens may fear deportation. If in the late 1990s the United States suffered an unexpected resurgence of racism and xenophobia, how would the Department of Justice know which neighborhoods to search for illegal aliens? The Census Bureau would probably hand over lists of neighborhoods with high proportions of low-income People with Hispanic or Caribbean ancestry. It is little wonder that many, recent immigrants refuse to cooperate with the census.

When other government agencies call for assistance, the Census Bureau may not even keep its word about the sanctity of data on individual households. During World War. I the bureau turned over the name-and-address lists to the Justice Department for use in the search for draft resisters.

Even Americans who don’t fear persecution or prosecution may be concerned about census confidentiality. The Census Bureau is already advertising its new commercial product that will. help marketers and credit bureaus zero in on individual households. The TIGER (Topical Integrated Geographic Encoding and Referencing) system will “include demographic data by census block.” (A census block comprises 200 or fewer people.)

Names and addresses will be omitted, but most of the other “confidential” census data will be divulged — including those on marital status, health and income.

Credit bureaus such as TRW, which already have vast computer files on nearly everyone, will be able to use TIGER to find out a good deal more. For example, the census long form asks how many cars a household owns.

TRW could buy the data for a census block and find. that only one household in the block owns three cars. As a credit-reporting service, TIM might already have a file on a particular household in the area that 64 taken out three car loan. TRW, by matching this data with the TIGER data, could then use “confidential” census information to learn about the income, dependents, house size, race ethnicity and marital status of members of the household.

The Census Bureau, since it did not disclose anyone’s name and address, would claim that it had kept its vow of confidentiality.

The federal government has gone into the business of helping commercial enterprises find out. intimate personal data, such as the fact that an unmarried couple is living together. The legality of the Census Bureau’s operating as a reporting service for businesses is dubious.

The Constitution authorizes a census for the purpose of congressional apportionment and for direct. taxation (a tax based on the population of a state). For those constitutional purposes, a simple name and address questionnaire would suffice.

The Census Bureau has shied away from legal confrontations over its extensive, collection of personal information. The. penalty for refusing to -answer the census is only $100, and false answers, bring a penalty of only $500. Yet the bureau did not prosecute a single nonrespondent in 1980.

Perhaps the Census Bureau is afraid of what courts would do with a census case. In West Germany in the early 1980s, a census boycott and then a court injunction delayed the census for several years. When Germany’s highest court finally heard the case, it ruled that many citizens could refuse to answer many census questions such as those about place of employment number of automobiles, health and income.

In the United States those questions still must be answered on the long census form, but the bureau steers clear of a court test of their legality. Homeless people, recent immigrants and people with an old-fashioned skepticism about big government probably will continue to resist a government agency that has turned itself into a for-profit adjunct of the credit bureaus.

David Kopel is an associate policy analyst at the Cato Institute in Washington, D.C.