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Home > Privacy and Government > Government Threats to Privacy > Public Records > Government Databases > The Census

The Census

The Constitution authorizes the federal government to "enumerate" persons in order to apportion congressional representatives among the states. To do this, the government needs only to know how many individuals reside at a given residence. This question appears on the first page of the census.

The remaining questions in the census long form ask Americans about matters that have nothing remotely to do with apportioning electoral votes. It asks for a detailed breakdown of income, how people get to work, and so on. Census forms ask questions about employment, how many toilets families have, and how much they pay annually for electricity, gas, water, sewers, oil, coal, kerosene, and wood.

If asked these questions by a business or private individual, most people would scoff and refuse to answer many questions, defending their natural sense of privacy. Responding to the census is not optional, however. It is required by law.

Though there are statutes that protect the confidentiality of census information, those laws have been overstepped in the past. They can be changed in the future without offering citizens the option of destroying information collected under prior law. Proposals to make census data more widely available within the government have been introduced, even while the failure of government to protect citizens' privacy has been widely discussed. Individuals have no recourse if the government decides to change the terms under which census information will be kept.

Information gathered by the U.S. Census bureau helped the government round up American citizens of Japanese ancestry during World War II. Census Bureau employees opened up their files and drew up detailed maps that showed where Japanese Americans were located and how many such people were living in a given area. Nearly 112,000 people were captured and sent to internment camps thanks to the census.

More recently, census data has been used to study anti-terrorism air passenger profiling systems, though the data was apparently scrubbed to prevent identification of any individual. Census data is used for purposes well beyond apportioning Americans' representation in Congress and, though pains are taken to prevent invasion of privacy, it is a highly sensitive area for Americans who instinctively resist being tracked by their government.

The American Community Survey has emerged as an alternative to the census long form for gathering statistical information. It is intended to provide better data for statistical purposes using information collected from fewer people. This will improve privacy somewhat by reducing the number of people about whom information is collected and maintained, even while the quality and quantity of statistical data about Americans is maintained or improved. Of course, for purposes of apportionment and redistricting, the census should count all the people in the United States without gathering personal information about them.


Study Used Census Information for Terror Profile by Audrey Hudson, Washington Times (January 19, 2004), follow up: Nasa 'Deidentified' Passengers, by Audrey Hudson, Washington Times (January 22, 2004)

My Data, Mine to Keep Private by Linda R. Monk, New York Times (October 23, 2000)

Testimony before the Committee on Government Reform, Subcommittee on the Census, United States House of Representatives by Dr. Edward L. Hudgins, Cato Institute (July 20, 2000)

U.S. Census Questions Put Your Privacy at Risk by Robyn Blumner, St. Petersburg Times (March 26, 2000)

Census Blamed in Internment of Japanese by Steven A. Holmes, New York Times (Seattle Post-Intelligencer) (March 17, 2000)

Comments? (Subject: Census)

[updated 02/24/04]

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