The U.S. Census and Your Privacy

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There has been much discussion in the news media and in online blogs and forums about whether the 2010 Census, or indeed any of the censuses and surveys conducted routinely by the Census Bureau, violate individual privacy.  The Census Bureau states that the information collected by their agency provides information about employment, housing, manufacturing, trade and other topics and that persons are never identified individually.  The Bureau also indicates that privacy is protected under federal law and by statistical safeguards that the Bureau uses to screen out data that might identify specific individuals.  Furthermore, individual census records are not shared with anyone, including other federal agencies and law enforcement departments.  Individuals can protect their privacy by realizing that the Census Bureau never asks for information to be submitted online.

Privacy concerns continue and two new concerns  have arisen since the 2000 census.  One is called “reidentification” which means extracting identities from the anonymous data sets that will be released by the Census Bureau. Such reidentification occured with data released by AOL and Netflix. The second new concern is a mail tracking system provided by the Post Office that can identify when the census forms were delivered and also indicate when addresses have changed.

A recent poll revealed that 49 percent of Americans are not confident that their data will be kept confidential. Other persons, including some lawmakers, have indicated that they will not complete the census at all or at least not fully.  Federal law however institutes fines and  even prison sentences to those who refuse or intentionally fail to complete the census forms.  Additionally, it does not appear that any federal judge has ever ruled any census question to be unconstitutional.

It appears that  the census is a necessary tool for many governmental reasons and, privacy concerns aside, is a form that all citizens should complete. Even taking the privacy concerns into consideration, given the legal history, it appears that completion of the form is necessary. As always, when unhappy with a governmental process, it is best to try to change the system.  Contact your legislator with your concern, but, for now, complete the form.

Contact information for legislators is available on the Public Records Directory as is information from past censuses.

One thought on “The U.S. Census and Your Privacy

  1. Jessica

    Thanks for the blog post. I had no idea people were worried about the census imposing on their privacy. I personally didn’t find any of the questions on the census to be too prodding. Everything was very general.

    Reply

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