After Latest Data Release Controversy, ACLU Urges Census Bureau to Create Privacy Advisory Committee

August 5, 2004 12:00 am

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Request Follows Report that Bureau Shared Data on People of Arab Descent With Homeland Security Officials


NEW YORK–In a letter sent today to the Director of the Census Bureau, the American Civil Liberties Union and the Privacy Rights Clearinghouse (PRC) expressed consternation over the Bureau’s provision of detailed data on individuals of Arab descent to the Department of Homeland Security, and urged the Bureau to create “a new outside body to advise the bureau on privacy and civil liberties issues.”

“We previously asked that the Census Advisory Board on which we serve create a privacy committee. Perhaps if it had done so, the release of sensitive data could have been avoided,” said Barry Steinhardt, Director of the ACLU’s Technology and Liberty Project and a signer of the letter along with PRC Director Beth Givens. “We are now calling on the Census Bureau to create an outside body to advise it on privacy and civil liberties matters.”

In the letter, Steinhardt and Givens also asked the Bureau to institute procedures for overseeing the provision of sensitive data in such cases.

“No law appears to have compelled the Bureau to provide this information, and we believe that the decision to do so violates the spirit of trust held by millions of Americans that the information they furnish on the Census will not be used against them by law enforcement agencies,” said the letter, which was addressed to Census Director Charles Louis Kincannon and signed by the ACLU and PRC.

Steinhardt noted that in response to the controversy, Homeland Security officials said they wanted the data in order to determine where to place Arabic-language signs in airports. “That explanation is highly suspect, and should have raised red flags,” he said. “The Census Bureau must understand that in a context where the government is singling out thousands of individuals because of their Arab ethnicity, such requests are inevitably highly sensitive.”

The letter noted that these questions arise “at a time and in a context where government security agencies have interrogated, fingerprinted, and detained thousands of people based on their ethnicity – policies targeted at Arabs that unfortunately recall the previous period of widespread governmental targeting of specific individuals based on their ethnicity, the internment of Japanese-Americans during the Second World War.”

In response to recent FBI announcements that it would continue its “dragnet” questioning of people of Arab and Muslim descent, the ACLU today announced that it is working with attorneys around the country to offer free legal representation to anyone who is approached by the FBI. The ACLU also re-issued its “Know Your Rights” pamphlets in eight languages, including Arabic.

The letter to the Census Bureau is available online at /SafeandFree/interviews/census_letter.pdf

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