May 18, 2000
CENSUS QUESTION ALARMS PRIVACY
By STEVE FRIESS
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
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
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
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,
"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
"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.