Wikileaks’ recent dump of classified information related to the CIA’s secret hacking operations has once again sparked a conversation about privacy in the digital age. While similar secret surveillance programs like the NSA’s PRISM have been in the public eye for years, other government agencies that mishandle millions of Americans’ private information in the light of day are often left unchecked.
Take the U.S. Census Bureau, for example. Since 2005, Census has selected approximately three million Americans annually to complete the American Community Survey (ACS), collecting information on the nation’s “demographic, social, economic, and housing characteristics.” While there’s no question that the ACS collects some valuable information, the intrusive nature of the survey and the poor security measures with which Census handles respondents’ personal information should be a cause for concern no less so than any surveillance by the CIA or NSA.
The methods used by Census Bureau employees can vary in the degree to which they violate a person’s privacy. Some may only receive letters in the mail, appealing to the person’s sense of community, with a veiled threat if they do not comply. Others have received a personal visit from a Census employee, often resulting in pressure or downright intimidation to complete the survey.
Take Kimberly Hayes of Sapulpa, Oklahoma. After being threatened with a fine by mail for refusing to fill out the form because “some of the questions made her uncomfortable,” a man sent by Census visited her home unannounced in the hopes of getting her to complete the ACS. The man “started walking around and was looking in windows,” according to Hayes.
If this gentleman had been trying to conduct a survey on behalf of a company’s marketing department, Hayes could have told him to get lost without fear of repercussions. She might even have been able to prosecute him for trespassing. So long as the ACS exists, however, the letter of the law is against people like Hayes. If our government treated its citizens with the respect that companies reserve for their customers, violations of privacy would be far less frequent.
Unfortunately, our government is more often a technological laggard than a pathbreaker. Census has been remarkably slow in following the private sector’s civilizing example. Recipients who fail to fill out the online ACS are sent a paper copy that they are asked to return in the mail, chock-full of personal information that could be damaging in the wrong hands. Questions range from the embarrassing (e.g. Question 18b, “Does this person have difficulty dressing or bathing?”) to the dangerous (e.g. Question 33, “What time did this person usually leave home to go to work last week?”).
Furthermore, the Census database is vulnerable. It has already been hacked into as recently as 2015. While Census tried to reassure nervous Americans that survey “information remains safe, secure and on an internal network,” bureaucrats don’t always follow internal safety protocols. In 2011, the State Department operated an internal network that “broke federal standards” and may have left “sensitive material vulnerable to hackers” according to the Associated Press.
Many ACS answers are already compromised by design. On the Bureau’s microdata website, anyone can download data of “anonymous” individualized ACS responses for areas with as few as 600 people. The only defense against those who might use ACS data for nefarious purposes is the bolded command: “Use it for GOOD — never for EVIL.”
There are better ways to acquire sensitive information while protecting the privacy of citizens. For instance, in Europe, there are many viable census models already in place that drastically reduce privacy violations, and are more cost effective to boot.
The Netherlands, Slovenia, and Austria are among eight European countries that obtain census data without employing costly survey employees to harass their constituents. These countries use models that only process data from what other government agencies have already collected, so there is no added risk of privacy violations from mandatory and redundant surveys. The monetary and psychological costs of harassment suggest that we should look for foreign alternatives, perhaps even outside any government solution.
If the destruction of the ACS does indeed leave a void in the market for knowledge, then a private company could fill this gap, while heeding a mandate to respect our privacy. The fact of the matter is that our government has rarely prioritized the right to privacy for American citizens, regardless of which party is in power.
The benefits of the ACS have been greatly exaggerated, especially when we consider viable alternatives. The monetary costs of the ACS, while excessive at over $1.3 billion per year, are nothing compared to the psychological damage done to three million Americans annually. Our right to privacy has been offered up by our government on the altar of the common good. Americans who love their liberty should support replacing the ACS with a more conscientious alternative.