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Conservatives and the Census

Chris Hoofnagle, adjunct professor of information | April 5, 2010

Naftali Bendavid reports today in the Journal on a problem facing conservatives: how should they assure their supporters, many of whom are suspicious of government activity, to participate in the US Census? After all, the Census sounds suspiciously like something Tiberius would like. But Moses was a fan too. And now Karl Rove is pitching the Census.

Ron Paul argues:

“The census should be nothing more than a headcount,” Mr. Paul wrote this month in his weekly column. “It was never intended to serve as a vehicle for gathering personal information on citizens.”

It should be noted that Paul is factually incorrect. Jefferson and Madison were strong proponents of expanding the enumeration, from the very first Census. But it is also true that privacy concerns have always plagued the Census.

Congress has an opportunity to address some of these privacy concerns. As I’ve written elsewhere, advances in “reidentification” have made it possible to determine the identities of Census participants. The Census Bureau has known about this problem for a long time, and has engaged in serious, well-respected research into solving it. However, the law has not kept up with the problem. Under 13 USC § 9(a)(2), the Department of Commerce is prohibited from “mak[ing] any publication whereby the [Census] data furnished by any particular establishment or individual under this title can be identified.” Thus, the Census Bureau must protect the identities of those who participate in the enumeration. But this law does not restrain private action. As a result, companies and others are free to try to strip citizens of their anonymity when participating in the Census, and even sell back the data to other government entities.

Conservatives could take a step towards allaying these concerns by extending Title 13 to prohibit private-sector efforts to reidentify participants of the Census. Germany has already done this. Unless this step is taken, it’s just a matter of time before this government-mandated enumeration results in an enormous transfer of personal information to those unethical enough to reidentify and attempt to profit from it.

Comments to “Conservatives and the Census

  1. This post is one more example of the fact of life today that we are indeed living in an age when every social, political and economic group is increasingly suspicious of every other group because our education systems have failed to do their job under the added stresses of political intervention and the politics of destruction.

    Fewer people are taught enough to think for themselves and make rational decisions as individuals due to the increasing oppression of our class system where the richest get richer at the expense of out of control numbers of new plus existing poor.

    The root cause of the failure of American institutions today is that we have failed to value and practice morality as our paramount cultural value for far too many decades.

    And now even UC is suffering the consequences of a metastasizing cancer of racism because of the failures of our intellectual elite to respect the needs of humanity over personal wealth.

      • Indeed, the Lessons of History are ignored again at our Peril!.

        Thus we follow a path to destruction like Cicero’s Rome and so many failed democracies before ours, because our politicians and intellectuals are failing to meet the challenge of change while global warming continues to accelerate beyond 360 or Bust, our natural resources and clean water supplies are disappearing, while poverty and violence are out of control.

        Our courts overthrow the Rule of Law with impunity, our political parties are venal, we enable religious immorality, racism is metastacising, and We The People are disenfranchising ourselves.

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