The American Community Survey (ACS) makes me very uncomfortable. It is a nationwide survey that is being forced upon the unlucky that happen to live in one of homes selected at random. I was one of those unlucky people and took immediate issue with some of the questions being asked and the manner in which the collection is being handled by U.S. Census Bureau representatives. It has me so worked up that I have difficulty phrasing things (unlike John Whitehead of the Rutherford Institute), but here goes.
The ACS is time consuming.
The U.S. Census Bureau says that it should take between 10-15 minutes to complete the survey. Like most government paperwork, I think this is absurd. Do you know where all your financial records are? Know what you paid in utilities last year? What about your mortgage payments? Everyone has those figures handy for just the occasion.
The ACS asks for personal data that should be private.
ACS attempts to collect everything from annual income to the number of bathrooms in the home. More scary are the lifestyle questions. How you get to work? Do you carpool? What is the address of your primary work location? How long your commute is in miles? About what time to you leave for work and what time do you return?
I understand that you could use this data to determine traffic patterns, but knowing how many people live in the house and what time they all leave for work? It all sounds like the type of pretexting that a thief would love to be able to get away with.
All of the individual questions aren’t bad by themselves, but when they are compiled together they would form a very specific picture. I don’t care if its for statistical purposes for the good of the country, it is a picture I don’t share with my close friends and family, let alone perfect strangers.
The ACS data is being collected in sketchy ways.
Since the ACS is a government program, there’s lots of information about how the data is collected. I’ll elaborate.
You get a letter in the mail saying to expect a survey in the mail in the next few days. The letter is laced with “this survey is important” language and to complete it as soon as you can.
A few days later you get the questionnaire itself.
After a week or two you get a letter saying that response is mandatory and that you’ll be fined and/or imprisoned if you don’t reply to the questionnaire. Another questionnaire is mailed as well. Not nearly as nice now, is it?
At this point the recipients are being bullied into complying. Most surveys are optional. Even when the once-ever-ten-years Census is done the only questions that you are legally obligated to answer are for determining representation in the Senate and Congress; you’re required to provide the number of adults and children that reside in your household. ACS is not being touted as optional; “fill this out or pay” is what comes across. The ACS is very clear that up to a $100 can be assessed for not answering and up to a $500 fine can be assessed for answering fraudulently. Now if it were $100 I’d gladly pay it and move on, but some documentation suggests that the fines are per question. That comes out to a lot more money which I don’t have.
There’s inconsistencies here though. An ACS Q&A (PDF) document states that “the police cannot see [my answers to the survey] and no other court of law can see it,” so who’s going to be issuing a fine or doing the imprisoning? Isn’t that the Department of Justice? If the U.S. Census Bureau isn’t allowed access to my tax returns, why should I be obligated to provide them with my annual income? I think they squeezed the authority for mandating a response out of an obscure section of law concerning the census and the the current ACS borders on unreasonable search. It feels that way.
It gets worse.
Most people get several weeks worth of phone calls to their home. Census Bureau representatives attempting to gather the information over the phone. I haven’t been pestered with this. I have Caller ID and don’t answer unknown numbers.
It gets worse.
Representatives are sent to your home to attempt to interview you in person. The creepy man at the door was a U.S. Census Bureau representative. They knock on the door. They ring the bell. If you don’t answer they sit and wait to see if you’re going to peek through the blinds or leave. After a while they give up for the day, only to return the following day. I didn’t answer the door either time, but supposedly this treatment lasts for several weeks. It is harrassment, no doubt about it.
ACS data is at risk.
The U.S. Census Bureau says that the answers aren’t linked to you. Then why does the questionnaire ask for your name? Wouldn’t “Resident A” be more appropriate for an anonymous survey? Each survey has a unique identification code that relates the survey to the address. This is a must for geographical analysis, but the link between the code and the address has to be kept somewhere… and my address can easily yield my name.
I’d feel better if I believed that the data would be protected. Dealing with network security a lot of the day, I have a learned cynicism for those implementing such protections.
Back in March of 2007 the U.S. Census Bureau “inadvertently posted personal information from 302 households on a public Internet site multiple times over a five-month period.” Accidental and a crime, yes… but it still happened.
The rep that attempted to contact me at home left a business card. He’s from a field office in Philadelphia, but his home number is listed as one local to this area. A residential exchange that I recognize from my childhood. I’d bet a paycheck that he doesn’t commute, which means that the laptop that he’s storing all of this data on is probably kept in his home. Is the home alarmed? Does he keep the laptop in a secure place like a safe? Does he use a VPN client when transmitting the data to the Department of Commerce?
In the past six years, the U.S. Census Bureau admitted to losing over 1,100 laptops. Considering they used over 20,000 in that period and being conservative, that’s 1 out of 20. Only 107 of those were fully encrypted.
What of the servers protecting the data at rest. Assuming that it gets to the servers in the first place, what protections exist there to prevent dataloss or unauthorized individuals from getting at it?
None of this helps my fears.
What to do about ACS
For now, I’m refusing to answer the questionnaire. If the U.S. Census Bureau representative — a Mr. Clifford E. Cohen of Millersville, Maryland — catches me at home, I’ll tell him there are two adults living here and that he can refer to them as Residents A and B. I’ll also tell him that it is a waste of his time, my time, and the taxpayers’ money for him to continue attempting to collect from me. If it doesn’t catch me at home, that’s not my problem.
And now, straight from my dreams…
If I had more balls I’d take all of the letters and pamphlets and questionnaires and drive them over to Mr. Cohen’s house. His personal residence — that he purchased back in the early 80′s for a decent sum — easily found from the home phone number on his business card and confirmed by public tax records and satellite imagery of the green car in the driveway. I’d knock on the door and ring the bell until someone answered and explain to him that I don’t appreciate being bothered and that despite his efforts in the past and those in the future that I’m not going to participate beyond what is required of me by federal law, that is the number of residents in my household and whether they’re adults or children. Hopefully he’d be wondering how I ended up on his doorstep and I’d tell him that all his information was gleaned from public records or that which he nonchalantly left tucked in my front door (perhaps thinking that a phone number registered in his wife’s name would provide some privacy), and perhaps then he’d begin to understand why I wouldn’t want to compromise my personal habits for the sake of some stupid survey questionnaire for fear that they would someday become public knowledge due to incompetence of their representatives or network engineers. Of course, when he drops things off he’s only doing his job. When I drop the same things off, it’s a crime. Harassment and/or trespassing. But he hasn’t been involved with any judicial cases either.
Spreading the word…
I have mixed feelings about publishing this. If the thing is legit and funding continues for it, I’m guilty of not responding. I won’t wax patriotic themes here, but I’m having difficulties with the fact that I’ve been put into the position by my country. That I feel obligated to ignore the law and abstain from responding. The right to privacy is a freedom that few have; to be stripped of it to complete a statistical questionaire under threat of fine and imprisonment feels wrong and very un-American.
Of all the commentary that I’ve read, I haven’t heard of anyone being fined for not participating. Have you? Is the U.S. Census Bureau blowing smoke up our asses? Have you fallen victim to the American Community Survey and the U.S. Census Bureau’s absurd — and borderline illegal if not obnoxious and Gestapo-like — collection methods? Did you fill out the survey?
Screw comment whoring, this is important.
05/14/08 – There have been quite a few visitors lately, referred here both by other web sites and by Google. So here’s an update. I haven’t heard anything from the Census Bureau about my failure to participate in the American Community Survey. I have received no further correspondence. I have not been contacted. I have not been fined. The threats of fines and jail time appear to be just that… idle threats.
03/13/10 – Still nothing.
12/05/10 – Still nothing. If you have a fresh perspective, feel free to contact me.