Census Bureau assures confidentiality, but privacy concerns persist

Wednesday, March 17, 2010 | 12:01 a.m. CDT; updated 7:19 p.m. CDT, Thursday, March 25, 2010

COLUMBIA —  The U.S. Census Bureau maintains that its data collection is safe, simple and secure, but some Americans — for reasons both personal and political — still worry that their information could be misused.

The issue is particularly sensitive for groups who fear becoming targets by adding their names to an official government list. In addition, there are political activists who oppose the census on grounds that it pushes its constitutional limits.

Concern for privacy is a persistent problem, said Rich Gerdes, assistant manager of the regional office of the U.S. Census Bureau. People are smart to be skeptical when giving out their personal information, but they have no real reason to fear the census collection, he said.

By law, identifying information is confidential with penalties for unlawful disclosure.

Immigrant populations can be especially difficult to count because many are unfamiliar with the counting process and may not trust government assurances that their information won’t be turned over to INS.

“The fear is something we see a lot with foreign-born populations,” Gerdes said. “People who are coming from a country or environment without the same enforcement of laws are obviously going to be wary of our assurances of privacy."

Shelly Jones of Columbia believes distrust of the government is also a concern among young black men, who often feel they are targets of law enforcement.

“I can see why people might worry," said Jones, who is African-American. "For a long time, the government has not been a friend to a lot of people in this country.”

Fear may be due to wariness of the government, misunderstandings of the collection process or ignorance for the importance of the data, said Dennis Johnson, director of the regional Census Bureau in Kansas City.

“It is hard for many Latinos to just believe the government when they say it’s OK, even when we are legal here,” said Martin Perez of Columbia.

“People are afraid to be different because it can be dangerous to be different here. It can be dangerous if people think you don’t belong,” Perez said.

Other groups have taken a political stance against the U.S. census.

“Basically, our largest issue is that it goes beyond what the Constitution says the census should be,” John Schultz, chair of the Boone County Libertarian Party, said. ‘The census was intended as simply an enumeration of the people. It goes much more in-depth than that.

“The nature of the questions asked gives the government inlets into areas where they shouldn’t be involved.”

Libertarians worry about the census’ collection of racial and ethnic data, claiming historical abuses of census data by federal governments.

Schultz said his party’s objections are consistent with its overall platform, which opposes the intrusion of big government on individual rights.

The U.S. Census Bureau operates under Title 13, a section of U.S. code that provides for the protection of confidential information. The mandate for the census itself comes from the Constitution, calling an enumeration of the people every 10 years.

The information is collected to produce statistics, Gerdes said.

“Those statistics are so, so important for the functioning of our government at the community and state levels.”

“We take great pride in protecting the information we collect,” he said. “And the information we’re asking for is pretty minimal. When I renewed my gym membership, I gave them much more information.”

The census does not ask for Social Security numbers, employment history or bank information, all things people have grown accustomed to giving out on a regular basis, Gerdes said.

The census also does not ask people about their legal status in the United States, and individual census takers are barred from revealing even suspicion of unlawful activity that may arise during their collection.

“We collect a lot of information that city and state governments would probably love to know, but we are barred from releasing any of that,” he said.

Census workers are sworn for life to protect private information. Unlawful disclosure is penalized with a fine of up to $250,000 or imprisonment of up to five years, or both.



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Toni Messina March 17, 2010 | 9:17 a.m.

Thanks so much for covering the importance of the 2010 Census. I got my form yesterday, filled it out and will mail it back today. We've learned that, according to the Census Bureau, the courts have held that Constitutional provisions are broad enough to allow a variety of questions. The Bureau notifies Congress several years in advance of questions to be included. The link below should provide more information on this topic.

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