Every 10 years, the federal government is required to carry out a Constitutionally-required enumeration of the people for purposes of apportioning representation. As part of the census form, many additional questions are asked as well including your phone number, race, occupant names, birthdays, and a host of other personal information. This information can prove to be very useful for data geeks, but I and anyone else who values privacy should be greatly concerned about the amount of information collected by the federal government.
Very plainly on the census form, it states that federal law prohibits sharing this data in any personally identifiable fashion. I have founded doubts as to whether or not this actually happens. In World War II, census data was used to round up Japanese families to put them into internment camps. More recently, information on individuals of Middle Eastern decent was requested by and provided to the Department of Homeland Security for unspecified purposes; it was never established if that personally identifiable information was held in confidence or not. Combined with actions like the PATRIOT Act, warrantless wiretapping, and Carnivore, I have little confidence that the data collected about me will actually remain in confidence, especially if a “national emergency”, real or fabricated, dictates its disclosure to law enforcement agencies.
Even if the federal government were using this data for purely innocuous purposes, I also have doubts about their ability to properly secure the information. For decades, federal agencies have received D+ or lower grades on information systems security, frequently experiencing breaches and compromises. Combine this paper-thin security with a treasure trove of personal data and you are just asking for a major theft of data that could impact every family in America. It makes the infamous TJ Maxx data theft seem like child’s play.
It’s also concerning that despite that the feds already have all of the information requested, they are asking for it again. Again, we see the ineptitude of federal IT staff as a whole at work. We have disparate data systems scattered over hundreds of agencies with no way of collecting that data together. Instead of fixing those fundamental flaws, the census bureau is instead sending out reminder letters a week before sending the actual census and dispatching tens of thousands of workers across the country to do what a couple of DBAs, with the right tools, could get done in a week with a case of Mountain Dew and a freezer full of pizza rolls. It would probably even be more efficient to pay one of those background check companies to collect the data at $40 a head; at a population of around 300M, the census would end up taking less time and 1/10 of the money with arguably better results.
I, for one, will only be filling out those fields I would feel comfortable with the feds having in a central database that I knew could be used to less-than-altruistic purposes or exposed to the criminal data theft underworld. I would encourage all of you to do the same.