Frequently Asked Questions on the National Census

March 11, 2000

Q: Does the Federal government have the right to hold a census?

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A: Yes. The government has a compelling interest in collecting some census data -- indeed, it is a constitutional requirement to "enumerate a census." This may include basic information such as name and address.1

However, there is some conflict between the right of privacy and the government's need for information on which to base legislation and programs to support and implement other fundamental rights, such as freedom from discrimination. Members of the public have legitimate concerns about the civil liberties implications of the national census. Foremost among those concerns are whether the census violates privacy rights and whether the government should be allowed to levy fines against those who refuse to fill out the form.

Q: Has census data been abused in the past?

A: Yes. Information gathered by the U.S. Census bureau helped the government round up American citizens of Japanese ancestry during World War II. When the Federal government came up with the idea that these Japanese Americans were a security threat, it needed some way to hunt them down. The solution? Use the Census records. According to officials who were in charge of the internment process, Census Bureau employees opened up their files and drew up detailed maps. These maps showed where Japanese Americans were located and how many such people were living in a given area.2 In the end, nearly 112,000 people were captured and sent to internment camps, in one of the darkest episodes in United States history.3

In the years after World War II, there have been repeated attempts to expand the use of Census records beyond mere statistical analysis. Recently, there was an effort to expand the number of public entities who have ready access to these banks of data, including state and local authorities, as well as the United States Postal Service.4 These developments underline the importance of new privacy protection laws to prevent history from repeating itself.

Q: Are there any laws which would prevent Census data from being abused?

A: Several laws have been implemented which should prevent the abuse of Census information.5 Indeed, it is generally illegal to use Census data for anything other than statistical purposes.6 These laws exist in part due to a variety of civil liberties-related concerns.

For example, many people unequivocally oppose the inclusion of any question relating to religious affiliation or belief, whether on a compulsory or voluntary basis on First Amendment grounds, and believe that even the expression of government interest in the religious activities of the population is an intrusion into the province of religious privacy. (See U.S. CONST., Amend. I.) In fact, it is illegal for the Federal government to ask such questions on census forms. (See 13 U.S.C. § 221(c).)  

Similarly, many experts have suggested that answers to questions on race and ethnicity be voluntary unless the data is assembled in a manner which protects the privacy of individuals by separating the racial or ethnic information from personal identifying information such as name or address. (In fact, the Census Bureau does keep this information in a form that can be tied to specific individuals, but it is prohibited by law from disclosing personally identifiable information. See 13 U.S.C. § 9 (1999).)

Q: Can I simply ignore census forms, or enter false information?

A: No. Currently, individuals who refuse to answer census forms, or who willfully provide false information, may face a fine (see 13 U.S.C. § 221(a) and (b), and 18 U.S.C. § 3571).  In either case, you may also receive either a phone call or a visit from a Census Bureau representative.

Q: Are there reasons to fill out census forms?

A: The collection of census data is not necessarily an intrusion in every circumstance, and is used to make many important policy decisions. Census information is used by local governments to get federal and state funding.

Census records help officials figure out where to build new facilities such as schools, day care centers, and highways. Information about race and ethnicity may help determine the extent of various problems, such as the use of racial profiling by law enforcement agencies.

However, although the government has a compelling interest in collecting some information, many individuals do not think that the government should have the power to punish people who choose not to respond. These concerned citizens believe the government should make every effort to demonstrate its commitment to keeping our information private.

Q: What can I do?

A: The ACLU is urging people through its Defend Your Data campaign (http://archive.aclu.org/privacy) to press lawmakers to protect us from unwarranted surveillance by either government or employers.

In particular, legislation has been introduced that would limit the census questionnaire to requesting only information required by the Constitution. (See H.R. 4085, 106th Cong. (2000).) While it is too early to say how effective these measures will be, the ACLU encourages the general public to contact their government representatives to express their opinions about this issue.

If you have complaints, call the government's Census Hotline at 1-800-471-9424 or go to their website at http://www.2000.census.gov.

Prepared by the ACLU Public Education Department, March 2000.

Endnotes:

1 U.S. CONST., Art. I, § 2.

2 COMMISSION ON WARTIME RELOCATION AND INTERNMENT OF CIVILIANS, PERSONAL JUSTICE DENIED 104-105 (1982).

3 See A. Michael Froomkin, The Metaphor is the Key: Cryptography, The Clipper Chip, and the Constitution, 143 U. PA. L. REV. 709, 732-733 (1995); see generally Korematsu v. United States, 323 U.S. 214 (1944).

4 The Sharing of Census Address Lists, 1994: Hearings Before the Subcomm. on Census, Statistics and Postal Personnel of the House Comm. on Post Office and Civil Service, 103rd Cong. (1994) (statement of Laura Murphy, Director, American Civil Liberties Union, Washington National Office).

5 See, e.g., 13 U.S.C. §§ 9, 221(c).

6 13 U.S.C. § 9.

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