Blogs > Liberty and Power > A new Census Threat to Privacy

Sep 17, 2004 7:30 pm

A new Census Threat to Privacy

One of the most disturbing violations of privacy rights is becoming more aggressive: the American census form in its various incarnations. In 2000, in an article entitled"Beware of Census Takers Bearing Gifts" I wrote of the then-looming census,"an estimated one in six households will receive a 'long' Census 2000 form with dozens of questions and subquestions. For example, 'Last week did this person do ANY work for either pay or profit?' (Emphasis in original.) 'At what location...?' All 'wages, salary, commissions, bonuses or tips' must be accounted for. Indeed, all income, including interest, dividends, rental income, and welfare must be listed. The form demands to know the value of your house and estate. Further, the long form inquires into the citizenship status of each person enumerated. Compliance is mandatory." In reality, however, prosecution for non-compliance was rare and (as I remember) the penalties were fairly light -- something like a $200 fine. But don't quote me.

Now in 2004, in an article entitled"The Thought Police and the American Community Survey," John W. Whitehead writes of a new census threat to privacy -- the American Community Survey."Unlike the traditional census, which collects data every ten years, the American Community Survey is taken every year at a cost of hundreds of millions of dollars. And at 24 pages, it contains some of the most detailed and intrusive questions ever put forth in a census questionnaire. These concern matters that the government simply has no business knowing, including a person's job, income, physical and emotional health, family status, place of residence and intimate personal and private habits....The questions, as Rep. Ron Paul (R-Texas) has said, are 'both ludicrous and insulting.' For example, the survey asks how many persons live in your home, along with their names and detailed information about them such as their relationship to you, marital status, race and their physical, mental and emotional problems, etc."

Again, compliance is mandatory but this time the authorities are baring real teeth. Whitehead notes,"For every question not answered, there is a $100 fine. And for every intentionally false response to a question, the fine is $500. Therefore, if a person representing a two-person household refused to fill out any questions or simply answered nonsensically, the total fines could range from upwards of $10,000 and $50,000 for noncompliance." What are the chances that the cash-strapped government won't pursue this easy source of revenue? Slim to fat.

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