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May 18, 2000

CENSUS QUESTION ALARMS PRIVACY ADVOCATES, CONGRESS

By STEVE FRIESS
Staff Writer

It turns out the most personal question the U.S. Census Bureau asked this year might not be the number of toilets in your home. It might have been your Social Security number.

About 21,000 American households received a census form asking respondents for that all-important nine-digit number, in addition to the typical inquiries on race, gender and age. It was a little-noticed experiment conducted by the Census Bureau to see how Americans would respond to being asked for the figure, a study aimed at determining whether Social Security numbers may be used in the next census to help count heads.

Reaction from the public has been minimal, with only nine of the 21,000 recipients calling a special toll-free number to object. But the idea elicited angry responses from privacy advocates who fear the government is pursuing a national identification system and from members of Congress who were unaware of the experiment.

Indeed, in a year of unprecedented skepticism about the confidential nature of the census and criticism from prominent Republicans about some of its more probing questions, the discovery of the Social Security inquiry is raising eyebrows.

"They're toying with this idea with no authorization from Congress," griped U.S. Rep. Mark Foley, R-West Palm Beach. "It seems like a horrific waste of money. And what was the point? There should always be a point with anything they do."

Census officials insist there is a point. The special census forms -- which look identical to other forms except for the additional question and an enclosed cover letter saying the question is optional -- were only one part of the "Social Security Number, Privacy Attitudes and Notification Experiment." Census workers also are interviewing thousands of Americans by phone to solicit opinions on privacy issues and to ask how protective they are of their Social Security numbers.

The result will be a report to Congress late this year or early in 2001 on people's privacy attitudes. Some in the Census Bureau think Americans could be more accurately counted via the Social Security number, which appears on several government forms from welfare applications to tax returns to, obviously, Social Security benefits.

Millions of dollars could be saved, advocates say, because the government wouldn't have to hire as many door-to-door enumerators to collect information on non-responding households when the data already might be available in a government computer.

"Where the bureau goes from this, I can't say," said Charlene Leggieri, the Census Bureau's director of administrative records research. "Chances are, it might be decided it's too risky to do anything more with it. It's safe to say the bureau is far away from making any recommendations on the 2010 census."

Such experiments aren't unique to the Social Security question and don't require congressional approval, said House Census Subcommittee spokesman Chip Walker. Other such efforts this year included handing out prepaid phone calling cards to entice people to answer the census and including slightly different wording for race and ethnicity questions to see whether sample respondents answered differently.

All experiments were reviewed by the committee, headed by Rep. Dan Miller, R-Sarasota, but no vote is required, Walker said.

"It's important to note that just because there are experiments doesn't mean the Congress or members of the subcommittee support the idea," Walker said. "If it's an experiment to measure the likelihood of people complying, then there's nothing wrong with finding out that information. It will certainly be useful. But the approval of something being used in the 2010 census does not hinge just on the response rate of the experiment. It's a much more complicated proces an oft-circulated fear among privacy advocacy groups that think the U.S. government seeks total control over the public. This test, opponents say, is evidence that their fear is justified.

"What's lurking between the lines here is that the Social Security number is being seen as some sort of a national identifier, which, of course, it was never meant to be," said Beth Givens, director of Privacy Rights Clearinghouse at the University of San Diego School of Law. "There is very strong public sentiment against there being an official national ID number. It's a mark of a totalitarian society. If we were to enter into a time of great social and political upheaval, a national ID number could be used for monitoring the citizenry and exerting social control."

U.S. Rep. Alcee Hastings, D-Miramar, said that while he thinks such opinions are "fringe politics" and he doesn't oppose a national ID, he is alarmed that this experiment might further erode public confidence in the Census Bureau.

"If ever there was something that needed to be cleared by Congress, securing the Social Security number for an experiment like this should have been vetted," Hastings said. "That would not have passed Congress. I believe it would go down 435-0."

The matter caught local census officials by surprise after months of insisting in public that such private information wouldn't be asked.

"I've been telling people that if anybody asks for your Social Security number, that's a pretty good indication that they are not with the Census Bureau," said Jack Curtiss, census spokesman for South Florida.

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