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data that would allow for the specific identification of individuals; however, the War Powers Act of 1942 temporarily repealed such protections.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.