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,
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.
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
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
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
Data, Mine to Keep Private by Linda R. Monk, New York Times (October 23, 2000)
before the Committee on Government Reform, Subcommittee on the Census, United States
House of Representatives by Dr. Edward L. Hudgins, Cato Institute (July 20,
U.S. Census Questions Put Your Privacy at Risk by Robyn Blumner, St.
Petersburg Times (March 26, 2000)
Blamed in Internment of Japanese by Steven A. Holmes, New York Times (Seattle
Post-Intelligencer) (March 17, 2000)