Why the Census Bureau Wants to Invade Your Privacy
Business + Economy

Why the Census Bureau Wants to Invade Your Privacy

iStockphoto/Getty Images/The Fiscal Times

In addition to monthly bills, there are two pieces of government mail that most Americans dread receiving.  One is a summons to serve on a jury.  The other is an envelope from the Census Bureau.

The American Community Survey (ACS) takes, on average, about 40 minutes to complete. It asks about your home, your commute, your income, your utility bills, and your children’s school. That data, which provide a statistical snapshot of the nation and its myriad neighborhoods, is used to make both public and private investments.

“It was among the most intrusive documents I’ve ever seen,” said Gary Seymore, who runs a waste collection company in South Carolina. “I realize there are conspiracy theorists out there in tinfoil hats. I’m not. I’m just a dad.”

His congressman, Republican Jeff Duncan, wants to stop the survey.

The Palmetto state lawmaker described the ACS and similar polls as “legalized government harassment.”  with 10 other GOP lawmakers, Duncan has introduced a bill that would pretty much restrict the Census Bureau to its constitutionally required 10-year survey.

The annual, three-year, and five-year updates gleaned from the ACS would disappear if the measure ever became law. But when House Republicans passed a similar bill last year, it was dead on arrival in the Democratic Senate.

The fight over the ACS offers unique insight into the country’s divide over the role of government. Many GOP lawmakers view the survey questions as an invasion of privacy, even though the data help the government to manage expenditures and produce independent research.

About 3.5 million households participate in the ACS, with the respondents picked at random and scattered around the country in a way designed to capture the full extent of the diversity. The response rate is 97 percent, so only three of every 100 people who are contacted refuse to cooperate. Info from the survey gets broken down to a neighborhood-like level. It can determine where highways are expanded, which items are sold by stores such as Target, how immigrants live,
and even which cities are best for losing weight.

The government makes investments and allocates tax dollars with guidance from a survey that costs $225 million this year, with the resulting shaping choices and projections made by the Energy Department, the Environmental Protection Agency, and Transportation Department among others.

Census Bureau officials refrained from saying that the ACS helps to reduce government waste, but they note that policymakers would be handicapped without the yearly stats. “If it was only provided once every ten years, as the data became obsolete, their ability to make informed decisions would decrease,” said Jim Talent, division chief of the ACS for the Census Bureau.

To increase convenience and save money, the ACS also went online this January.  About a quarter of those surveyed this year completed the web-based form. They still have the option of a paper questionnaire or phone interview.

The Fiscal Times spoke with two of Congressman Duncan’s constituents who complained to his office about the ACS.

After introducing his bill last month, Duncan noted that individuals who decline to answer the surveys can be fined as much as $5,000. Neither of the men interviewed, however, said that they’ve been fined for refusing to answer Census questions. The Wall Street Journal noted last year that penalties have never been assessed.

Charles Creran, a 73-year-old retiree, recalled getting the letter in the mail about a month ago. He decided not to respond, which led to a follow-up phone call from a Census employee.

In the middle of the survey, Creran asked how much longer it would take. When he was told 15 minutes, the former chemical engineer and finance director hung up. “It felt like she was creating a profile on me,” he said, saying the questions were getting more and more personal.

When the Census phoned him again a few days later, Creran was suspicious. It was 7 p.m. “It didn’t seem like a government person to me,” he explained. “Governments don’t work past 5:00.”

Creran contacted Duncan’s office and later received a friendly letter from the Census Bureau that tried to explain the survey. But the native New Englander said the questions were inappropriate, as if the caller was “setting me up so that she can sell information, which is very common,” he said.

The ACS division chief, Talent, said the survey specifically avoids questions that could be personal identifiers. “We don’t ask for your Social Security number, your mother’s maiden name, or bank account information,” he said.

Creran said Congressman Duncan has his vote in 2014 because of the bill against the Census survey.  “I’m a Republican dyed in the wool, but let’s say I did vote for Kennedy when he ran for office, but that idiot that’s in the office now.”

Gary Seymore of Anderson, S.C., was stunned when the Census called him on his cell phone. He wondered how a government bureaucrat had gotten his number.

He was surprised that the unanswered questionnaire mailed to him asked about his investment income and utility bills (a Census question since 1940). He was disturbed by questions about the location of his kids’ school and the pattern of his commute (an avenue of Census inquiry that started in 1960).

“They have your work pattern, your workplace. In this digital age, there is no way that can protect your data,” said Seymore, who was also skeptical about why the Census needs to duplicate information the IRS already has.

Talent said the bureau is trying to coordinate with the IRS, but there are restrictions on the financial information under federal statute and formatting issues.

And for the South Carolinians shaken by the hacking of their state’s Department of Revenue last year, the Census official stressed, “We have a secure data [center] here in headquarters that prohibits external access. We do not release information about any individuals specifically. No one person’s information can be identified.”

But the problem isn’t just privacy and security. It’s about survey participants not seeing a connection between their valuable time and the benefits of filling out a bureaucratic form.

The U.S. Chamber of Commerce, the National Retail Federation, and the Mortgage Bankers Association have previously lobbied to protect the ACS, saying it’s vital for shaping business investment. As an example, the ACS contains 24 questions about housing. This includes the age of your home, its plumbing, its insurance costs, and the type of heating fuel used. For bankers and economists trying to evaluate the state of the real estate sector after the 2008 bust, it’s essential information. 

Seymore—who said his company does not rely on government stats—considers the questions to be ludicrous. “When I received this, I spoke about the survey with my friends,” he said. “They thought it was so preposterous that those questions are in the Census forms.”