In February 1942, two months after the United States declared war against
Japan, President Roosevelt issued Executive Order 9066, which authorized military
commanders to prescribe areas that people could not enter or leave without
permission. A month later, Congress made it a crime to violate an order
issued under this authority.
In May 1942, the commander of the western defense command issued an exclusion
order requiring persons of Japanese descent, whether they were citizens or not,
to report to "Assembly Centers" and "Relocation Centers."
The United States government used information gathered by the Census Bureau
to help round up these Americans. Census Bureau employees opened their files and drew
up detailed maps that showed where Japanese Americans were located and
how many were living in given areas. Nearly 112,000 people were captured and
sent to internment camps during this period.
Korematsu was the name of a person who defied one such order and was prosecuted.
His case went all the way to the Supreme Court, which ruled that his detention
and punishment were constitutional, given the circumstance of being at war.
It trivializes the experience of these Americans to say that they lost their
privacy, because they lost much more. Their captors were motivated by only the
best of purposes, but this did not stop them from acting in a way that hindsight
must view as pernicious.
One of the lessons that can be drawn from this case is that databases in the
hands of government can be used very wrongly. Because the passion or emergency
that will allow this cannot be predicted, the best way to prevent misuse of
government databases is to avoid their ever being created.