U.S. Department of Commerce
Link to Census 2000 Gateway What the Census Bureau Isn't Telling Anyone

As soon as you receive your Census 2000 questionnaire in the mail, a horrible thought might immediately cross your mind.

"Is the whole world going to be able to see my answers?"

You can put that fear to rest right now. Federal law (Title 13, United States Code) mandates that no one outside the Census Bureau can ever be given any information that would enable them to connect your answers with your name and address.

It also says that before anyone inside the Census Bureau sees your completed questionnaire, they must first be sworn to secrecy. And if they were to violate this oath? They would have the long arm of the law to contend with: a sizable fine (up to $5,000) and prison term (up to five years).

A recent amendment to Title 13 permits local and tribal government officials to review and provide updates to the Census Bureau's address list to ensure its accuracy for the purpose of conducting the census. (They, of course, still aren't allowed to see individual census records.) These officials are subject to the same confidentiality requirements as Census Bureau employees and face the same penalties for any violation.

You want to know how strict the Census Bureau is about adhering to this law? Not even the president of the United States is permitted to look at individual census records!

Not that presidents, over the years, haven't tried. Before major renovations that would temporarily close down the White House got under way roughly a half century ago, Secret Service agents visited the Census Bureau. Their mission was to try to find information about neighbors around the house where they were planning to move President Harry S. Truman until work was completed on the White House.

The agents explained to Ed Goldfield, program coordinator for the 1950 census, that obtaining this information was a matter of national security. But Goldfield denied their request, explaining that releasing information on individuals obtained from the census was against the law. Today, protecting the privacy of census respondents remains a critical part of every Census Bureau employee's training.

Of course, if the president isn't allowed to see your answers, neither is anyone else outside the Census Bureau. This means courts of law, credit companies, solicitors, the police and military, the Internal Revenue Service, the Federal Bureau of Investigation, immigration and welfare agencies -- nobody! But what about the Freedom of Information Act? Well, it might give individuals access to lots of information, but not to individual census answers.

The Census Bureau's dedication to confidentiality plays an important role in everything it does. Before they begin working for the Census Bureau, all employees must pass a security and employment reference check, swear they are not employed as tax collectors or assessors or law enforcement officials and establish they have no felony convictions as adults. On top of all this, the agency employs a host of safeguards, such as electronic barriers and secure telephone lines, to block outside access to any confidential information in Census Bureau computers.

After you return your form, it will be sent to one of the Census Bureau's four processing centers, where workers will scan it directly into computers that can read responses. Within 10 to 15 days, it will be shredded. Your answers will be combined with those of other people to produce statistical summaries.

Millions of questionnaires were processed during the 1990s without a breach of trust. The agency has processed hundreds of millions of questionnaires -- from those filled out by movie stars to those completed by your neighbors -- without any breach of trust.

There are three certainties in life -- death, taxes and the continuation of the Census Bureau's proud tradition of keeping information it collects about individuals strictly private.


Source: U.S. Census Bureau
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Created: March 1999
Last Revised: June 14, 2010 at 01:38:53 PM