The Census and Your Privacy

Since Congress first delegated its census-related authority to an Executive Branch official, it has retained some retained for itself an active oversight role in the form, content, and methodology of the census. Under Title 13 of the US Code, the US Census Bureau is prohibited from sharing with any agency or anyone (private or government at any level) any personally identifiable information collected for the Census, including citizenship status. This law has been in place and has been strictly adhered to since it was enacted in 1954! The most significant exercise of Congressional oversight was when in 1976, Congress made substantial changes to Title 13 of the United States Code, including authorizing the Secretary of Commerce to “obtain such other census information only as necessary”, with the burden of proof for what is “necessary” on the Secretary. 

The Secretary of Labor’s scope of power in collecting data is constrained in several other ways under Title 13: first, the Secretary is directed to acquire and use "pertinent" information from other federal, state, and local authorities for the purpose of gathering census-related data; second, Secretary shall acquire and use information available from any source referred to in subsection (a) or (b) of this section instead of conducting direct inquiries." And third, Congress restricted the Secretary's authority to collect data — other than for the straightforward purpose of counting whole persons for apportionment purposes — through nationwide inquiries of the whole population with the provision that, "[e]xcept for the determination of population for purposes of apportionment of Representatives in Congress among the several States, the Secretary shall, if he considers it feasible, authorize the use of the statistical method known as `sampling' in carrying out the provisions of this title." Third, the Secretary is required to give advance notice (of up to 2-3 years) to Congress of all subjects to be included and information compiled in any given census. Finally, the Secretary’s authority to share any census information is strictly restricted, particularly when it may involve data of an individual or establishment that can be identified.

Part of: Harris & Ewing photograph collection (ca 1940). Source: Library of Congress.