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Home > Privacy and Government > Government Invasions of Privacy > Korematsu


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.


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[updated 04/17/02]

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