Down For The Count

A test census survey stirs up questions on privacy

"As sponsors, they may, in some cases, decide how and when the results will be disseminated," the bureau's "consumer service standards" stated.

Individual identities are not included in the surveys-for-sale. But the bureau disseminates data from more than 200 surveys. They were conducted on behalf of government agencies as diverse as the Bureau of Justice Statistics, the Bureau of Transportation Statistics, the Social Security Administration and the National Science Foundation.

Bureau information goes into census fact sheets on such vital topics as Valentine's Day (marital statistics are analyzed), Hispanic Heritage Month or Thanksgiving (which totals cranberry sales and identifies the three U.S. town names containing the word "Turkey").

Census data are rarely distributed with any pertinent identification information attached. Other government agency information, however, is a different matter, which adds to the concerns of critics.

Dozens of government databases are now on the World Wide Web, making personal information available at a click of a mouse. Last spring, the Social Security Administration had to remove key areas of its web site because people were able to easily access too much information on individuals.

Evan Hendricks, editor of the New York-based Privacy Times, is troubled that people cannot opt out of the bureau's ever-increasing thirst for data. The Census Bureau's constitutional right to count people may not extend into rights to demand that individuals reveal information about their property taxes or flood insurance or septic system, he says.

Privacy is not just an issue for paranoids, Hendricks says. Most people don't give it a second thought, however, until something goes wrong in their lives. "You have your ex-spouse looking for you or you're in litigation or you're active in the community and the other side doesn't like you ... Those are the times when you really start to worry about how much privacy you have," Hendricks says.

The American Civil Liberties Union, which has officially opposed a national ID and has supported the protection of medical records, has no formal position on the American Community Survey. Texas ACLU official Diana Philip of Dallas says the government probably has a right to limited information, but citizens also "have a right to know, and grant permission, as to how the information will be used and where it will go."

Protests against the survey appeared to yield little more than statements of concern from congressional representatives.

Lee, a member of the Census Task Force overseeing the next population count, offered no elaboration on her general vow to monitor future drafts of the survey against invading personal privacy. And she says there should be restraints on who has access to the data.

Congressman Archer reacted to complaints by asking the House Subcommittee on the Census to limit intrusive questions "to an absolute minimum in the survey.

"The [survey] makes it obvious that today's Census has gone far beyond its stated purpose of enumerating the population," Archer wrote in a letter to critics.

Meanwhile, protester Herrera awaits his next contact with the bureau, in the form of a visit from a "census enumerator."

If he continues to refuse to cooperate -- and he says he will refuse -- Herrera faces a $100 fine from the bureau's boss, the U.S. Commerce Department.

When that bill arrives, Herrera promises he won't pay up.
"They'll have to come after me because this survey is clearly an invasion of privacy. They ask questions that border on the ridiculous."

Herrera believes most people on the street would feel that the detailed information is none of the government's business. Let the bureau get the raw data from private industry, he reasons.

As for challenging the bureau's power, "There's no doubt that I'd lose," Herrera admits. "The federal government is Big Brother. They can squash you like a bug.

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