Conservatives and the Census

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.

Cross posted at The Berkeley Blog