Down For The Count

A test census survey stirs up questions on privacy

Questions began innocently enough in the survey that showed up three months ago in the mailbox of a North Harris County home.

The recipient, a white-collar professional in his late forties, started thumbing through its inquiries which sought basic biographical information. Soon, however, the 16 pages of questions took a turn down personal paths for him and others in the household:

Was he laid off from work? Absent from the job last week? Looking for other employment? What amount of money did he and the others earn?

When did he leave for work and arrive there? What time did he return home? Did anybody in the house stay elsewhere for more than two months?

And how much were last month's utility bills? What's he owe on his second mortgage? Does he have a long-lasting physical or mental condition that makes it hard for him to get out of the house?

Can he even speak decent English? Is his sewage part of a public or private system?

Baffled by the barrage of questions, the man had one of his own: Who was trying to get this kind of personal information out of him?

He found the answer marked clearly next to the computer bar codes on the cover of this benign-titled American Community Survey: It was the U.S. government's own Census Bureau.

"When I looked at that survey for the first time, it made me angry to think that my federal government is spending my tax dollars on a survey that asks all sorts of snoopy questions," said John Herrera (a pseudonym -- he said he did not want his name publicized in his fight for privacy). "I just didn't like the tone of the whole thing. It was really none of their business."

Herrera treated the survey as he would any other unsolicited request for personal information: he threw it in the trash and thought the matter was over. But dealing with the feds would not prove so easy.

Arriving in the mail three weeks later was an identical American Community Survey. There were six new words stamped on front: "Your Response Is Required By Law."

That unopened questionnaire went into the garbage as well. More recently, a census worker called Herrera at home and began asking the questions to try to personally take the information. He told the caller he did not have time to answer. Then he hung up.

Herrera, a native Texan, describes himself as a conservative whose last beef with the government was as a liberal opposing the Vietnam War. But he joins what appears to be a growing backlash at a potential "Big Brother" privacy invasion -- conducted by an agency originally ordained to do little more than conduct headcounts every ten years.

The survey has reached 61,000 area homes thus far, and complaints are reaching Harris County's Congressional delegation in increasing numbers.

Charles Patrick of the Cypress area fired off a message to U.S. Representative Bill Archer after his 89-year-old mother became alarmed at the tenor of the questions.

"My biggest concern is who has access to this and what my rights to privacy are," Patrick says. He dislikes the concept of the government asking "fairly personal questions" with the power to penalize him if he chooses not to provide information.

In a Scarborough High School forum last fall, U.S. Representative Sheila Jackson Lee heard a woman rail about filling out a government survey requiring her to divulge the number of bathrooms in her house. That's worse, the woman said, "than the era of Hitler and Stalin."

To hear the explanations given by some federal officials, the demographic way is the democratic way.

For the past 18 months, the American Community Survey has been mailed to Harris and Fort Bend county residents at a clip of 3,400 homes a month. Census workers say the questionnaire, now in a five-year test program in urban communities, is intended to eventually replace the Census Bureau's long form for the 2010 census.

Census short forms count people; long forms are supposed to provide expanded demographic data. Some of the old long-form questions appear in the survey, which is designed to provide more accurate and timely estimates of housing, social and economic information.

"What we're trying to do is to get a feel for what's going on in the community with annual statistics," says Gwen Goodwin, the bureau's regional government specialist who attended Lee's Town Hall forum.

"People are a bit more concerned these days because it's easier for people to take your identity, but this information will not be viewed by anyone other than a census bureau employee, for the next 72 years," says Goodwin. "The data is separated from the name immediately."

Officials say the Privacy Act of 1974 guarantees the personal information won't be handed over to other government agencies or sold to private companies.

However, critics point out that the bureau's own web site is devoted extensively to marketing findings to the private sector through what it calls its "CenStore." With the ease of a credit card purchase, shoppers can buy "off-the-shelf" bureau reports and databases, contract for special requests or have the bureau conduct surveys for them.

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