Private means private – not even FBI can access census information


“We have always counted, in this country, everyone, whether they are documented or not. Over the years, we have learned that if we have strong [privacy] laws, we protect individuals who might hesitate to participate,” Robert Groves, the Census Bureau director told the Daily Planet on a recent visit to Minneapolis.  

“I can say with certainty that because of this law, no enforcement agency, no landlord, no one from immigration can access information from the census.” Groves said that it is in the best interest of the Census Bureau to protect this information because only then can the information gathered be reliable. Data collected from the census is used for drawing political boundaries, distributing federal funds and for city planning, which includes roads and public schools. 

The first US Census was in 1790, and the census has been conducted every ten years ever since then. As Grove indicates, the census is an actual count of everyone in the United States every 10 years: American citizens and residents, foreigners with visas as well as those without, people living in temporary homes, jails, hospitals and even the homeless are counted. According to Grove, it has not been unusual for people to hesitate in sharing their personal information with the census, leading to the creation of strong privacy policies. 

Three sections in Title 13, the U.S. statute that authorizes the census, speak to the protection of information that could reveal the identity of an individual or business. The first of these stipulates that the census protect personal data. The second is that this information in only collected for statistical purposes and identifying information cannot be divulged; doing so is a federal crime punishable by sentencing to a federal prison for up to five years, a fine of up to $250,000, or both. Finally, all personnel with access to census data take an oath to keep private census data for life or else suffer these penalties. 

To demonstrate their commitment to protecting personal data, Graves recounted how in 1953, when the White House was being remodelled and the Secret Service wanted to know the identity of President Harry Truman’s new neighbors at his temporary home, the Census Bureau declined to share this information. He also talked about the 1980 Colorado Springs case, in which the FBI attempted, unsuccessfully, to confiscate data for a fraud investigation. 

However, two particular incidences have undermined the public trust that the Census Bureau has tried so hard to gain.

In 1942, during World War II, the Bureau shared the names and addresses of Japanese Americans with the Justice Department and the Secret Service. Last year Rep. Michele Bachmann notoriously used this to urge people not to participate in the Census

Following the September 11th terror attacks, the Census Bureau shared the data listing cities and zip codes where Arab Americans lived with the Department of Homeland Security. The information did not include any names or addresses. The Bureau said that sharing information on where Arab Americans lived did not break the law, but it revised its policies, saying that it would require the specific authorization of high-level Census Bureau officials before assisting law enforcement agencies in gathering and tabulating data.

In an interview with the New York Times, then-Census Bureau chief, C. Louis Kincannon, said, ”We recognize that simply making sure we obey the law may not always be enough to ensure that people trust us. Perception also affects how people view and cooperate with the census. This is an interim step to restore trust.”

The census laws in Title 13 of the U.S. Code protect personal identifying information (names and addresses) by keeping it absolutely private for 72 years. After that time, the information is submitted to the National Archives.  The court held that this statue of limitation was enough assurance to protect an individual’s privacy. The current 10-question form asks for number of household members, their names and home ownership or rental. Gender, age and race are also included. In this interactive guide, the Bureau explains why each question is necessary for collecting national statistics. 

“If you are really concerned about your privacy, and don’t want people knocking at your door, then the best thing would be to mail in your census form,”says Graves.

According to Hannah Garcia, a community organizer with the Center for Urban & Regional Affairs (CURA) , those who haven’t mailed back their completed census forms will receive a second questionnaire after April 1st, the official census day. “Then, in May [Census] door-knockers will be sent out to homes that did not mail back a form.”