The census' broken privacy promise

Despite decades-old assurances census data would be private and pose no harm, the federal government is releasing data that could reveal family skeletons or lead to identity theft.

This is a guest commentary. See below for Adam Marcus' biography.

Seventy-two years ago, the federal government made a promise to the American public: "No one has access to your census record except you."

So said a radio ad intended to promote participation in the 1940 census by assuaging privacy concerns. President Franklin Roosevelt even proclaimed, "No person can be harmed in any way by furnishing the information required. There need be no fear that any disclosure will be made regarding any individual or his affairs."

Yet today, the government is posting online all 3.8 million pages of the 1940 census rolls for all to access -- at no charge and with no need to register before viewing them. Eighty-seven percent of Americans can find a direct family link to one or more of the 132+ million people listed on those rolls. The 1940 census included 65 questions, with an additional 16 questions asked of a random 5 percent sample of people.

You can find out what your father did, how much he made, or if he was on the dole. You may be able to find out if your mother had an illegitimate child before she married your father. And you can view information on anyone, not just your own family. Because Americans faced stiff penalties for not answering census questions truthfully, this information is likely to be quite accurate. While that makes it more useful to genealogists, it's also an invitation to defraud the elderly, as many financial institutions use things like mother's maiden name, father's middle name, and/or date of birth as passwords.

So why release the data at all? In 1952, as a condition to transferring archived census records to the National Archives, the Census Bureau proposed (PDF) that 72 years after each census, "the National Archives and Records Service [now the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA)] may disclose information contained in these records for use in legitimate historical, genealogical or other worth-while research, provided adequate precautions are taken to make sure that the information disclosed is not to be used to the detriment of any of the persons whose records are involved."

The original intent (PDF) was to limit access to those looking for their own ancestors. But when someone requested records on a particular individual from NARA, they received the entire census roll page, with information on approximately 50 other individuals, or about 10 families. In the 1970s, NARA began loaning the microfilm records to libraries where they could be accessed and photocopied by anyone. In the 1990s, commercial companies began to digitize and sell the released census records. Today, the entire 1940 record becomes accessible online.

But today's publication isn't the worst privacy violation. Although not yet conclusively proven, it seems clear that the Census Bureau disclosed the names and addresses of Americans of Japanese ancestry from the 1940 census to the Secret Service and FBI, when they used that information identify the 100,000+ Japanese-Americans sent to internment camps in 1942. With this history, it's shocking that the 2010 official census form (PDF) only meekly states that "your answers are protected by law. "

For today's release, there's no putting the genie back in the bottle. There is no denying the incredible value of today's release for genealogists, demographers, and medical researchers, but the Census Bureau can and should institute some changes for future censuses and future releases. At a minimum, the next census form should explain that records will eventually be made public. This may indeed result in less participation, but the Census Bureau could simply allow people to refuse to answer sensitive questions (such as phone number, date of birth, race) and/or allow them to completely opt out of publication of their responses.

Since the number of enumerated individuals still alive when the census rolls are to be published each coming decade will grow with increasing longevity, the 72-year delay before should be lengthened to 100 years -- both for future censuses and the 1950 to 2010 censuses that have not yet been released. Those looking for their own or their family's census records can still request that directly from the Census Bureau. When published, NARA should consider restricting the general publication of answers to sensitive questions.

If a private company reneged on its privacy policy, you can bet the Federal Trade Commission would immediately launch an investigation. But the only ones who can act when a government breaks its own rules are citizens.

Remember this in 2020.

About the author

    Adam Marcus is chief operating officer of TechFreedom, a nonpartisan think tank dedicated to promoting the progress of technology that improves the human condition and expands individual capacity to choose.

     

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