US Census Bureau Helped With Japanese Internment

This may have been one of the most overlooked stories of last weekend.  Historian Margo Anderson and statistician William Seltzer found evidence that the US Census Bureau participated in the Japanese internment by providing microdata to the Secret Service to help them identity individual Japanese Americans.  The law prohibits the Census Bureau from releasing data that would allow for the specific identification of individuals; however, the War Powers Act of 1942 temporarily repealed such protections.  The Census Bureau had previously admitted that it released neighborhood level data to government officials responsible for the Japanese internment, but Anderson and Seltzer found data indicating that the Census Bureau did, indeed release “micro” level data, which could be connected to individuals.  The researchers tracked down this information by searching documents from the US Department of Commerce:

A new study of U.S. Department of Commerce documents now shows that the Census Bureau complied with an August 4, 1943, request by Treasury Secretary Henry Morgenthau for the names and locations of all people of Japanese ancestry in the Washington, D.C., area, according to historian Margo Anderson of the University of Wisconsin–Milwaukee and statistician William Seltzer of Fordham University in New York City. The records, however, do not indicate that the Bureau was asked for or divulged such information for Japanese-Americans in other parts of the country.

Anderson and Seltzer discovered in 2000 that the Census Bureau released block-by-block data during WW II that alerted officials to neighborhoods in California, Arizona, Wyoming, Colorado, Utah, Idaho and Arkansas where Japanese-Americans were living. “We had suggestive but not very conclusive evidence that they had also provided microdata for surveillance,” Anderson says.

The Census Bureau had no records of such action, so the researchers turned to the records of the chief clerk of the Commerce Department, which received and had the authority to authorize interagency requests for census data under the Second War Powers Act. Anderson and Seltzer discovered copies of a memo from the secretary of the treasury (of which the Secret Service is part) to the secretary of commerce (who oversees the Census Bureau) requesting the data, and memos documenting that the Bureau had provided it.

The Scientific American has a copy of the original document requesting “microdata” posted on its site.

This is relevant to our current political climate because because of post 9-11 concerns about the Patriot Act and because of technology changes that make data exchange much easier.  Apparently, the Census Bureau has already released neighborhood level data on Arab Americans:

The Census Bureau provided neighborhood data on Arab-Americans to the U.S. Department of Homeland Security in 2002, but the information was already publicly available, Jones says. A provision in the controversial Patriot Act—passed after the 9/11 attacks and derided by critics as an erosion of privacy—gives agencies access to individualized survey data collected by colleges, including flight training programs.

The Census Bureau has improved its confidentiality practices considerably in the last six decades, former director Prewitt says. He notes that census data is an increasingly poor source of surveillance data compared with more detailed information available from credit card companies and even electronic tollbooths.

Nevertheless, he says, “I think the Census Bureau has to bend over backwards to maintain the confidence and the trust of the public.” Public suspicion—well-founded or not—could undermine the collection accurate census data, which is used by sociologists, economists and public health researchers, he says.

“I’m sad to learn it,” he says of the new discovery. “It would be sadder yet to continue to deny that it happened, if, as now seems clear, it did happen. You cannot learn from and correct past mistakes unless you know about them.”

If they had learned from their past mistakes then, why did they release this neighborhood data in 2002?  And should we be concerned that micro level data has been released again? I don’t have any answers, but I worry about this happening again.

The ethnic-profiling of Arab Americans is not going to engender a positive relationship with minority communities, and the Census Bureau should know better.  One of the big concerns in 2000 was a Census undercount in minority communities.   Of particular concern was immigrant communities where residents did not have a legal status in the US.  Although the law prohibits Census data from being used to round-up undocumented immigrants, such actions (releasing microdata) do not allay such concerns in these communities.  The outcomes of not being counted affect such immigrant communities, but they also affect the larger communities when their funding for local projects is allocated based on smaller population projections.  Local level funding, voting, and other population concerns such as low income housing demands or educational needs are harder to meet when the Census Bureau undercounts population.  Unfortunately, the Census Bureau is not an apolitical scientific entity, so we do have to be vigilant about how political issues can affect data collection or subsequent data use.  It is imperative that people speak out about the misuse of such data.  I especially encourage my fellow social scientists, who rely heavily on this data to speak out against such misuses.

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29 Responses to US Census Bureau Helped With Japanese Internment

  1. 1
    SamChevre says:

    I know people who don’t have Social Security numbers, work in the cash economy, and don’t return Census forms or file tax forms. They’re looking saner all the time.

  2. 2
    Robert says:

    If they had learned from their past mistakes then, why did they release this neighborhood data in 2002?

    Because democratic governments are very poor at maintaining institutional memory.

    It’s always bittersweetly amusing for this libertarian when left/liberals are shocked – SHOCKED! – to see government (ab)using power. Yeah. That’s what they do.

  3. 3
    Rachel S. says:

    Robert, I thought you and I might agree on aspects of this.

  4. 4
    Rachel S. says:

    Sam said, “I know people who don’t have Social Security numbers, work in the cash economy, and don’t return Census forms or file tax forms. They’re looking saner all the time.”

    I know where you’re coming; it’s the big brother issue.

    As a side note, if people don’t fill out the Census, the Census takers go door to door and canvas neighborhoods. They have special methodologies for counting the homeless population and institutionalized people, if I remember correctly.

    Another side note: There are also overcount issues, too. One such group is college students, who are often marked on their parents Census forms and by Census enumerators in college towns.

  5. 5
    Robert says:

    Robert, I thought you and I might agree on aspects of this.

    We do. Government information gathering is an inherently dangerous activity, because it creates a temptation to abusively mine the data, as in this case.

  6. 6
    Charles says:

    I don’t see how government data gathering is inherently any worse or better than private corporations doing data mining. As the Census Bureau points out, there is much richer data to be gotten from private sources than from the Census Bureau, and if you think it isn’t being aggressively mined by Homeland Security, you haven’t been paying attention for the past half decade. It isn’t even clear that the protected Census Bureau data is being mined by the DHS (I’d bet it is…) and the DHS is as free to mine the public census data as any of us are.

  7. 7
    Robert says:

    I didn’t say it was worse or better. I said it was dangerous.

  8. 8
    RonF says:

    Of particular concern was immigrant communities where residents did not have a legal status in the US. Although the law prohibits Census data from being used to round-up undocumented immigrants,

    Too bad.

    such actions (releasing microdata) do not allay such concerns in these communities. The outcomes of not being counted affect such immigrant communities, but they also affect the larger communities when their funding for local projects is allocated based on smaller population projections. Local level funding, voting, and other population concerns such as low income housing demands or educational needs are harder to meet when the Census Bureau undercounts population.

    Why should the Federal government count illegal aliens? Why should it allocate tax money to provide services to illegal aliens?

  9. 9
    Michael says:

    SamChevre Writes:

    April 5th, 2007 at 4:53 pm
    I know people who don’t have Social Security numbers, work in the cash economy, and don’t return Census forms or file tax forms. They’re looking saner all the time.

    One of those people mentioned as such while waiting in line at the post office to get his mail held while on vacation. Behind him was an IRS employee who noted the license plate of his car. you don’t want to know how that one ended.

    Most of those in my wife’s family are upper level government employees. One of them showed me a little gizmo he had which allowed him to put in a license plate and get just about everything imaginable out in seconds. Earlier in my wife’s career she would often times attach a modem to the phone and freeze a persons bank accounts. What shocked me was the ease in which she was able to track offshore accounts I assumed were untraceable .

    Charles Writes:
    April 5th, 2007 at 8:39 pm I don’t see how government data gathering is inherently any worse or better than private corporations doing data mining. As the Census Bureau points out, there is much richer data to be gotten from private sources than from the Census Bureau, and if you think it isn’t being aggressively mined by Homeland Security, you haven’t been paying attention for the past half decade.

    Interesting comment. Has anyone ever REALLY read the small print on your credit card agreements?

    As an aside, I wonder how Robert and Charles feel about two very real possibilities. The first is a national ID card which would be tied to everything from getting a drivers license to dog tags. Next there is the very real possibility Boston and other cities are considering. Camera coverage on virtually every single populated area, street corners, parks, etc. This is following the British plan.

  10. 10
    Charles says:

    Robert,

    Okay, yes, it is dangerous. Less dangerous than having a standing army, but more dangerous than bunnies. Is it any more or less dangerous when it is a government doing it or when it is a private corporation (or an academic researcher) doing it?

    Michael,

    Both a national ID card and the British style omni-surveillance make me nervous. Unlike census data, for which I can see a pressing need, I don’t see a pressing need for either omni-surveillance or national ID cards. The British omni-surveillance didn’t prevent the London Underground bombing, and the US was able to ID all of the 911 bombers without omni-surveillance, so I’d need some convincing that omni-surveillance is useful against terrorism (which seems to be the main excuse for it).

  11. 11
    Robert says:

    That rabbit is a killer. Look at the bones, man!

    I don’t like the idea of a national ID. Camera coverage of public areas I’m not fond of, but can live with; key word, public.

  12. 12
    Ampersand says:

    Why should the Federal government count illegal aliens?

    Because knowledge is better than ignorance.

  13. 13
    Robert says:

    Not count as in “how many are there”, but count as in “consider as part of the population when assigning budgets”.

  14. 14
    Ampersand says:

    Oh, I see. Thanks for the clarification.

    In that case, my answer is: I think the discussion of whether or not tax dollars should be spent helping illegal immigrants isn’t very on topic for Rachel’s post. It’s a pretty generic argument, frankly, and we shouldn’t have the 50th round of it here.

  15. 15
    Brandon Berg says:

    Charles:
    There are a couple of reasons why I think private data collection is less dangerous than government data collection. First, private entities, acting independently, have less ability to abuse the data than the government does. No private entity in US history (or any other country’s history, AFAIK) has done anything comparable to the internment of Japanese Americans during World War II.

    Private data collection usually poses a threat only when it falls into the wrong hands, particuarly the government’s. And that can happen, but the government usually has to force them to hand it over, and they often fight it, because companies look bad when they voluntarily hand over data on their customers. This creates visibility. On the other hand, when one government agency uses data collected by another government agency, we may never hear about it. This makes it easier for the government to abuse publicly collected data than private data.

    Also, it’s worth noting that the government has tried to force private companies to collect more data because the data they were collecting voluntarily didn’t have enough potential for abuse (e.g., Know Your Customer, all kinds of tax-related stuff, and IIRC some new requirements the Bush administration introduced, though I can’t remember what they are at the moment).

  16. 16
    drydock says:

    Well, I’ve twice worked for the census going door to door. My impression is that information collected this way is pretty inaccurate. Lots of people don’t want to give out information, a lot of census takers just make shit up to get paid, not to mention the danger factor in places like Oakland that leads to a lot of “estimates”.

  17. 17
    Brandon Berg says:

    One point I missed in my last comment: If you don’t like the data collection practices of private entities, you don’t have to deal with them. Or you can just lie to them. You do have to deal with the government no matter what you think of their data collection practices, and while you can try lying to them, it’s illegal, and if the government’s in a bad mood (or if you lied about tax stuff), they can nail you for it.

  18. 18
    Sailorman says:

    1) Do you think the government should do its best to use information gathering to try to stop what it perceives to be a threat?

    If not, then attacking the release of census data makes sense. but i have a hard time not saying “yes” to this, at least in theory. information gathering is quite different from action. informed action is–theoretically, at least–better than uninformed action.

    2) Is the census data something inherently appalling to release?

    I don’t think so. It’s not like, say, library data, or reading someone’s diary. I think there are some dastardly and ultra-intrusive things the government does to folks. But learning what one does for work, or where one lives, doesn’t seem to me to be in that category. And, as we all know, this data isn’t really private anyway these days.

    3) Are the benefits of not releasing the census data greater than the benefits of releasing it? Or, is the harm of release greater than the benefit of release?

    Hard to say. A lot of folks claim that distrust of the government is going to screw up census information. but it’s inaccurate look at ABSOLUTE values. We have to look at CHANGES in values.

    that is to say, it is incorrect to assign this release as the “cause” of the general distrust. Yes, illegal immigrants and other folks don’t like to give their data to the census. But did this action really change things that much? they didn’t like to give their data before, either.

    If the detriment of releasing the census data is small, then the benefit can be small (but relatively larger) and still justify the release.

  19. 19
    RonF says:

    In that case, my answer is: I think the discussion of whether or not tax dollars should be spent helping illegal immigrants isn’t very on topic for Rachel’s post. It’s a pretty generic argument, frankly, and we shouldn’t have the 50th round of it here.

    But this posting speaks directly to that. Again, from her post:

    Of particular concern was immigrant communities where residents did not have a legal status in the US. Although the law prohibits Census data from being used to round-up undocumented immigrants, such actions (releasing microdata) do not allay such concerns in these communities. The outcomes of not being counted affect such immigrant communities, but they also affect the larger communities when their funding for local projects is allocated based on smaller population projections. Local level funding, voting, and other population concerns such as low income housing demands or educational needs are harder to meet when the Census Bureau undercounts population.

    The position that it seems to me that Rachel is taking is that if the Census Bureau releases fine-grained data to the rest of the government, illegal aliens will no longer trust the Census Bureau enough to provide the data and their presence will be undercounted. That in turn will mean that insufficient funding will be provided to the local government agencies to meet their housing, educational and other needs. In other words, the Census Bureau should be stopped from sharing this data (from a functional viewpoint, not a legal one) because the end result will be that funding for their needs won’t be allocated. I’m replying directly to the expression of concern there. I’m saying that there are preferable solutions to this problem other than stopping the Census Bureau from ceasing to provide this information.

  20. 20
    RonF says:

    I’ll chime in on the overall theme here as well. The whole idea of not trusting the Census Bureau is, from my viewpoint, fine by me. Anything that keeps the State from knowing too much about me is good. If that interferes with the ability of the Federal government from taking my money, slicing a piece of it off to support the Federal bureaucracy, and reallocating the remainder to someone else, I think the solution would be for it to stop, or at least slow down greatly. The state and municipal governments are closer to their citizens and are a lot more accountable to them, so if the citizens of that state think such functions are necessary, good for them. Have the Census Bureau get a lot less intrusive on the amount of information they try to get and people will be a lot more willing to provide it. The Constitution established the Census to determine the allocation of representation, not tax money. It is useful to have it gather other information, but it shouldn’t be a free-for-all.

    In fact, given it’s Constitutional mission, one piece of information that should be a very high priority for the Census should be determining whether or not the people being counted are citizens, as non-citizens shouldn’t be used to allocate Congressional representation.

    A National ID card is not something I want to see. It makes me very uncomfortable. And I agree with Robert that the gathering of information by the State is inherently dangerous to liberty. But given the security situation we need some way to be able to track non-citizens’ movements. That part of the Real ID program where one’s drivers license has to be specifically marked as to whether or not the holder is a citizen seems a reasonable compromise (I hold out no commentary on the rest of the Real ID act).

  21. 21
    RonF says:

    Local level funding, voting, and other population concerns such as low income housing demands or educational needs are harder to meet when the Census Bureau undercounts population.

    Rachel S., I have a question; what is the meaning of the word “voting” in this?

  22. 22
    Rachel S. says:

    One of the purposes of the Census was to determine voting allotments. Obviously, non-citizens, whether they are here undocumented, on a temporary visa, or legal permanent residents, don’t vote (I have seen some debate about allowing some of these groups to vote for school boards, but not other officces.).

    As the population shifts around the country, rather than adding representatives, they just move the votes to where the greater population is. For example, states like Ohio, Massachusetts, and Michigan are losing votes, and states like Arizona, Georgia, and Nevada are gaining votes. I’m fairly certain that the population is not just determined by voting age citizens, children count and people who are not citizens also count. They don’t ask about your status in the country, and on the short form, they don’t even ask if you are a citizen or not.

  23. 23
    Rachel S. says:

    I am not personally convinced that private entities are any better off in collecting our personal data. Look at the Choicepoint case or TJX (which was likely an inside job), or don’t even get me started about Equifax.

    The argument that market forces can prevent data from being stolen or misused doesn’t really seem to apply in the current market. Not to mention the fact, that these companies (and government run agencies) have been lax in reporting data theft.

  24. 24
    Charles says:

    A National ID card is not something I want to see. It makes me very uncomfortable. And I agree with Robert that the gathering of information by the State is inherently dangerous to liberty. But given the security situation we need some way to be able to track non-citizens’ movements. That part of the Real ID program where one’s drivers license has to be specifically marked as to whether or not the holder is a citizen seems a reasonable compromise (I hold out no commentary on the rest of the Real ID act).

    Because terrorists have no knowledge of how to make fake ID? Because terrorists are never citizens? Because treating all non-citizens as potential terrorists seems like an effective or productive or just way to find the 1 in several million who is a terrorist?

  25. 25
    RonF says:

    O.K. Just wanted to make sure I understood.

    So, I’m trying to figure out something. Should the Census be required to determine the citizenship of the people it’s counting in order for it to be doing the job it was Constitutionally created for?

    Apportionment of Congressional representation among the states are, as far as I can tell, based on two parts of the Constitution. First, Article I, Section 2, paragraph 3:

    Representatives and direct Taxes shall be apportioned among the several States which may be included within this Union, according to their respective Numbers, which shall be determined by adding to the whole Number of free Persons, including those bound to Service for a Term of Years, and excluding Indians not taxed, three fifths of all other Persons. The actual Enumeration shall be made within three Years after the first Meeting of the Congress of the United States, and within every subsequent Term of ten Years, in such Manner as they shall by Law direct. …

    and Amendment XIV, paragraph 2:

    Representatives shall be apportioned among the several States according to their respective numbers, counting the whole number of persons in each State, excluding Indians not taxed. But when the right to vote at any election for the choice of electors for President and Vice-President of the United States, Representatives in Congress, the Executive and Judicial officers of a State, or the members of the Legislature thereof, is denied to any of the male inhabitants of such State, being twenty-one years of age, and citizens of the United States, or in any way abridged, except for participation in rebellion, or other crime, the basis of representation therein shall be reduced in the proportion which the number of such male citizens shall bear to the whole number of male citizens twenty-one years of age in such State.

    Plus Amendments XV and XIX, which ensure the right to vote for all persons irrespective of race or sex, and would thus seem to modify Amendment XIV, which calls out male citizens only.

    So Article 1 and Amendment XIV call out “free persons” and “persons”, leading one to believe that representation is to be allocated on the basis of the number of persons in a given state, and not citizens only. Yet, Amendment XIV goes on to say that if any citizens of a given state are denied the vote (e.g., if only whites are permitted to vote), then the number of representatives allocated to that state should be reduced proportionately, which would seem to relate representation to the number of voters in the state.

    So I know how I’d regard this. My guess is that when this was all written, no one expected that there would be a significant disparity between the number of persons in a given state and the number of citizens. But my question is, what’s the law? Are representatives supposed to be allocated on the number of citizens in a given state, or the total number of people, including both legal and illegal aliens? Has the question been considered or adjudicated?

  26. 26
    Charles says:

    I think the language is pretty clear, and that the proviso reducing the basis of representation is intended to punish states for denying the vote to citizens, but that the basis of representation is intended to be based on the number of free people living in the state. The language is pretty clear, and 5 million Europeans emigrated to the US between 1815 and 1860, so the writers of the 15th amendment were probably aware of the idea of immigration.

    In 1860, several states (Wisconsin, California, Minnesota) had populations that were more than 50% foreign born, and several others had populations that were more than a third foreign born. While many of these people would have been citizens (I couldn’t easily find numbers for percent non-citizen), many of them were not.

  27. 27
    Robert says:

    Yeah, the language is clear. The Founders knew the difference between “citizens” and “persons”.

    So there’s another reason to oppose mass illegal immigration: it unfairly distorts the relative political strengths of the states. Texas owes Maine an electoral vote.

  28. 28
    sylphhead says:

    “The argument that market forces can prevent data from being stolen or misused doesn’t really seem to apply in the current market. Not to mention the fact, that these companies (and government run agencies) have been lax in reporting data theft.”

    Not to mention the fact that the whole point of the data being secret means people don’t find about it, nor do people get very clear information from their credit card and insurance companies anyway.

  29. 29
    RonF says:

    Does including illegal immigrants in the counts for political representation also mean that our representatives will be influenced by the presence of people who don’t owe allegiance to the United States and would have to place the interests of other countries over that of ours?