I received my census form in the mail today. I don’t generally think twice about it – I understand why the government needs this information to allocate representation, funding, etc.
But the insert caught my eye: the Census Bureau took the time to tell me that I don’t need to worry about what they’re going to do with my personal information. It is, after all, protected by law. Here’s an excerpt from the Census Bureau website:
We depend on your cooperation and trust, and promise to protect the
confidentiality of your information. Title 13 of the U.S. Code protects the confidentiality of all your information and violating this law is a crime with severe penalties. In addition, other federal laws, including the Confidential Statistical Efficiency Act and the Privacy Act reinforce these protections.
Obviously the Census Bureau considers these assurances regarding the legal protection of privacy to be crucial to getting honest answers. I’m not surprised – the information could certainly be used to identify likely tax evasion, immigration status, even occupancy codes. It is very sensitive information in its raw, unaggregated form.
This isn’t my first census form. I’ve had the opportunity to participate in the previous two censuses. But for me, for the first time, I am not reassured by their claim.
After all, I’m pretty sure that warrant-less wiretaps are illegal too. As is torture – isn’t it? I believe the evidence is strong that our government has authorized or allowed both activities. Certainly it was necessary to pass legislation giving telecommunications companies immunity from prosecution for participating in wiretaps. I’m no legal expert but to this citizen that means that the wiretaps are acknowledged to be illegal – we just won’t do anything about it.
So, how can I have any faith that the Census Bureau would live up to it’s claims? How can anyone?
But it’s an opportunity. This is one of those “teachable moments” that a parent, or teacher would apply to an unruly child. What more natural consequence could there be for lawless behavior by the government than to say “You know what? I won’t tell you that information because I don’t trust you to act in good faith with it.” The census, as an opportunity for civil feedback, is a perfect time to teach that lesson. I only wish that it could be recognized as civil feedback instead of the apathy that it would undoubtedly be labeled as.