It would have been fitting for the United States to collect census data via the Net in the year 2000. But it's not going to happen.
Despite millennium fever, the Census Bureau has decided against collecting online responses due to privacy concerns.
"We want people to be candid and absolutely assured that there is no way their particulars will be leaked," David Hoffman, a Census 2000 spokesman, said today.
When people respond to census questions, they are guaranteed by law that their personal answers about race and income, for example, will be sealed for 72 years. The answers are made public in aggregate form. Only now are the 1920 census rolls being opened up, revealing respondents' identities.
Census officials held forums about online security prior to making the decision. Public perception that online communication is not secure was the main factor that led to leaving the Net out of the 2000 response process, Hoffman said.
"In this environment, technical arguments and assurances are not necessarily persuasive to potential respondents," the Census Bureau acknowledged in a public notice on the issue. "And, in the court of public opinion, no issue is more central to the success of Census 2000 than the public's faith in the confidentiality of their census responses."
The government has faced public backlash over concerns about digital privacy before.
Last April, the Social Security Administration shut down an online service that let visitors download employment histories. No security breaches were reported, but there was widespread fear that it was only a matter of time.