General Question

Snoopy's avatar

US Census/American Community Survey. Privacy issues?

Asked by Snoopy (5788points) August 26th, 2008

I have been selected to fill out a 28 page survey. It asks very detailed info such as children’s names (why?), dates of birth (inc. month and day), income, etc.
I am not keen to participate, however it says that it is “required by law”. Is this legit? Has anyone else ever received this survey? Your thoughts?

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8 Answers

wildflower's avatar

I’ve received the Irish equivalent, which asks questions like religion, but doesn’t have a tick box for ‘none’.
It is supposedly required by law that you complete it – honestly, no less – but there is a delightful loophole in the Irish census: it is to be answered by any and all present in the household at the time…..so you just make sure you’re not home then!

lefteh's avatar

Congratulations, you have been randomly selected to be the representative of many others in your area. The ACS is what helps the Census Bureau figure out how many people are living in the country, and what they are like. These are the people that give the numbers that decide how many representatives an area is entitled to, among other things. It’s entirely possible that you’ll get fined if you don’t fill it out.

These surveys are important in giving governments accurate cross-section of their constituents in order to serve them best. Take an hour out of your day, sit down, fill it out, and turn it in.

marinelife's avatar

If it is any consolation, the government already knows the names and birth dates of your children, your income, etc.

Here were the Census Bureau’s plans for protecting the data. Of course, as we know, things can go wrong.

“Retrievability:
Information may be retrieved by name and address. Name and address
information are maintained separately from corresponding survey data
for privacy and confidentiality purposes.

Safeguards:
The U.S. Census Bureau is committed to respecting respondent
privacy and protecting confidentiality. Though the Data Stewardship
Program, we have implemented management, operational and technical
controls and practices to ensure high-level data protection to
respondents of our census and surveys: (1) All U.S. Census Bureau sworn
individuals are subject to the restrictions, penalties, and
prohibitions of Title 13 of the U.S.C., and all employees are annually
certified through training concerning the confidentiality of data; (2)
data sets released by the U.S. Census Bureau have been subjected to and
have successfully met criteria established by an internal Disclosure
Review Board to ensure no personally identifiable data is released; (3)
an unauthorized browsing policy protects respondent information from
casual or inappropriate use by any person with access to Title 13
protected data; and (4) all computer systems that maintain sensitive
information are in compliance with Common Criteria auditing, which
monitors all read, write, create, and delete access to restricted data.

Retention and Disposal:
American Community Survey respondent data, including personally
identifying data, are captured as images suitable for computer
processing. Original data sources are destroyed, according to the
disposal procedures for Title 13 (``census confidential’’) records,
after confirmation of successful data capture and data transmission to
U.S. Census Bureau headquarters. Personally identified data are
scheduled for permanent retention.”

Michael's avatar

I use that data in my work all the time and I can tell you that it is totally anonymous. Most people use that data in pre-packaged form: tables that the census bureau prepares. Those tables have absolutely no personal data in them and no way at all to connect any of the numbers to actual people.

More intensive users can download what’s called the public user micro data. Those files do include data according to the individual survey respondents but all personal information is completely stripped out. Again, there is no way to connect that data to specific actual people.

Snoopy's avatar

Amazingly, I actually talked w/ a real live federal employee w/ the census bureau today (after several menus….but still….)

The person was very nice and advised me that if I declined to fill out this form, they would send me a reminder, followed by another survey packet…...and then attempts via phone to have someone chat w/ me and fill it out for me….If I still somehow manage to avoid them, they might send someone to my front door. She said if they are still unable to track us down they will frequently just dismiss us from the survey…..

Now, I share all that for informational purposes only…..I intend to fill out the form.

Even better she said I do not have to write names, phone numbers, dates of birth etc. into the form. I can use something like “female head of household”, “child A” etc.

Also, if there is something that I do not feel comfortable filling out (income, race or whatever) I can simple write “decline to answer” or “don’t know” and that this is OK>

Snoopy's avatar

@wildflower: I have every confidence that if the US gov’t wants to find me, they will, unfortunately….

@lefteh: Yes. Yippee for me. I am one of 3 million. I would have rather one the lottery, but I guess that we can’t have it all. :)

@marina: Yes, I do understand that the gov’t already knows this stuff. I have an unrealistic false sense of being able to control my personal info. A random, unsolicited thing in my mailbox just made me a little grumpy, I guess :(
I am pleased to note that they at least appear sensitive to my concerns, both via the info you found and from my conversation w/ the gal today.

@Michael Thank you for sharing that…..it is just a little creepy to receive this I guess, as I had never heard anything about this….I thought that all the census bureau did was the every 10 year deal…...

marinelife's avatar

@Snoopy I would have hated it too. (And probably will some day when they get around to me.)

galileogirl's avatar

Census information is eventually made public but only after 70 years. You can access the 1930 census on line or at your regional National Archive site. Genealogists are waitng for the 1940 census to be released in about 18 mos.

You should be more worried about your information that is in the hands of corporations. Their security systems are breached all the time. And of course the government has easier ways to keep track of you, don’t they. because you fill out tax returns with personal and financial information including the names ages and ssn’s of your dependents. They also have access to your credit report which tells EVERYTHING!

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