Don’t let unfounded privacy concerns keep you away from the census

Soon, census takers will be spreading out across Detroit neighborhoods, knocking on doors to get the answers to the questions that people were either too reticent or too apathetic to provide on the mail-in questionnaire. While people have always had a host of reasons for not wanting to participate in the census, one that has been consistent over time is that the government already knows too much about our business.   

Honestly, it’s not the government that knows too much about your business—it’s business. People don’t seem to realize that they’ve already shared tons of “private” information in the course of everyday commerce. Why balk at answering ten easy questions for the 2010 Census? 

I began my career as a demographer with the Census Bureau in Detroit.  I was with the Bureau for the 1980 and 1990 Censuses, and, while I was working with Wayne State University in 2000, our Census-State Data Center coordinating function kept me well in the loop.  I know that extreme measures are taken to make census data secure.

The information is aggregated, so that individual data are not available. Census employees risk heavy fines and jail for misusing census data. The Census Bureau does not allow residents to answer the questions online, significantly lowering the possibility of security breaches.

Plus, this year’s census questionnaire is the shortest in decades, with no questions about income, occupation or education level.  You give more information than that to your average credit card company.

Allow me to make my case a little stronger with a story that just came through my email box. Titled, “Web Coupons Know Lots About You, and They Tell,” the article describes how online coupon “clipping” (as opposed to the old cutting of paper coupons packed in with your daily newspaper) is taking advantage of the shoppers.

“A new breed of coupon, printed from the Internet or sent to mobile phones, is packed with information about the customer who uses it. While the coupons look standard, their bar codes can be loaded with a startling amount of data, including identification about the customer, Internet address, Facebook page information and even the search terms the customer used to find the coupon in the first place.  While companies once had a slim dossier on each consumer, they now have databases packed with information.  And every time a person goes shopping, visits a Web site or buys something, the database gets another entry.”

So if you’re having second thoughts, have them about providing information online, not about providing information to a census taker. The information that you give to the census will help support important, federally funded services in your community like hospitals, transportation and HeadStart programs. Can you say the same for the information you just provided while Googling?