The 2010 Census: Will your answers stay private?

What you need to know about the 2010 Census: The bureau has a proven history of violating privacy in the name of security.

In his State of the Union message, President Obama warned that America is suffering from a “deficit of trust.” One example of this deficit is the controversy over whether citizens can trust the feds to keep the census responses they’re filling out in coming weeks confidential.

Americans are told that the Census Bureau operates under a reverse Miranda warning: Any information gathered will never be used against them. The House of Representatives, in a Census Awareness Month resolution passed March 3, proclaimed that “the data obtained from the census are protected under United States privacy laws.”

Unfortunately, thousands of Americans who trusted the Census Bureau in the past lost their freedom as a result.

In the 1940 Census, the Census Bureau loudly assured people that their responses would be kept confidential. Within four days of the attack on Pearl Harbor, the Census Bureau had produced a report listing the Japanese-American population in each county on the West Coast. The Census Bureau launched this project even before Congress declared war on Japan. The Census Bureau’s report helped the US Army round up more than 100,000 Japanese-Americans for concentration camps (later renamed “internment centers”).

Until a decade ago, the bureau denied any improper role in the internment. Two researchers in 2000 provided so many smoking gun documents that the bureau finally admitted some culpability. But it proudly declared that it had never provided the names and addresses of specific Japanese-Americans to law enforcement or the military.

In 2007, a study by those researchers, William Seltzer of Fordham University and Margo Anderson of the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, proved that the Census Bureau gave the Secret Service the names and addresses of all persons of Japanese ancestry in the Washington, D.C., area during World War II. The bureau responded by insisting that this was ancient history. While the disclosure may have been dated, the bureau’s deceit lasted for more than 60 years and undermines its credibility. And we do not know how many other census confidentiality violations have yet to surface.

In 2003-04, the Census Bureau provided the Department of Homeland Security with a massive cache of information on how many Arab Americans lived in each ZIP Code around the nation, and which country they originated from. Such information could have made it far easier to carry out the type of mass roundup that some conservatives advocated. But the Census Bureau denied it had done anything wrong in providing such information.

Citizens are supposed to pretend that their census responses will exist in a politically antiseptic vacuum. Yet if top politicians decide to use census responses for another roundup or crackdowns on specific individuals or groups, then federal law will either be changed or ignored.

It was the Census Bureau that led the charge in 1942 to persuade Congress to pass a law permitting disclosure of census responses to federal law enforcement and other agencies. (That law expired in 1947.) But the bureau did not even wait for the law’s passage before betraying its pledge to Americans.

Since the last census was taken, the feds have consistently scorned legal and constitutional protections of Americans’ privacy. After 9/11, Justice Department and White House lawyers decided that the Fourth Amendment’s prohibitions on warrantless searches were null and void, and that the president could order any surveillance he pleased. The National Security Agency illegally compiled records of the phone calls made by tens of millions of Americans. The Federal Bureau of Investigation illegally vacuumed up the e-mail and other personal data of thousands of Americans, according to the Justice Department’s Inspector General’s Office.

A surplus of lies naturally produces a deficit of trust. Instead of viewing census critics as conspiracy theorists, the nation’s political leaders should recognize how their policies have undermined public faith in government. If the government brazenly ignores laws prohibiting torture, why expect officials to scrupulously obey laws regarding a public survey? Snappy Census Bureau ad campaigns cannot expunge the federal record book.

The more information the government collects on people, the more control it will have over them. The Constitution requires that the population be counted every 10 years to apportion seats in the House of Representatives. All the census really needs to know is how many people live at each address. Citizens should refuse to answer any census question except for the number of residents. A partial boycott of the census questionnaire is a tiny but important step to safeguard our remaining liberties. Citizens are not obliged to pave the data highway for Leviathan’s next intrusion into their lives.

James Bovard, who worked as a census taker in 1980, is the author of “Attention Deficit Democracy” and eight other books. He’s also a policy adviser to the Future of Freedom Foundation.

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