Hacker Fear slows Census Count

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Census queries raising computer-security questions New inquiries strike some as an opening to hackers or invasions of privacy. Bureau officials say fears could reduce responses.


Betty McAdams is afraid computer hackers could steal her personal information. Joe Alessandroni figures marketers somehow will buy his. Entire Web sites question the government's right to the data at all. In the last two weeks, about 15 million Americans began receiving the most intrusive government questionnaire most will ever fill out. The "Long Form" from the U.S. Census Bureau - 37 pages filled with 53 questions about everything from language skills to toilets - is prompting some recipients to squeal about invasion of privacy, a complaint that has arisen every decade since the long form was launched in 1960. This year, however, Census officials and privacy experts said they detect a more pointed fear: concern about computer security. The growth of the Internet since the 1990 Census along with high-profile attacks on Web sites such as Yahoo have exacerbated already-rising concerns about the safety of any information on any computer anywhere. "Alarmed is a good word," said McAdams, 51, of Philadelphia, an assistant director of Greater Philadelphia First, an alliance of business executives in the region. "I assume they're going to compile all this information on a computer somewhere. . . . Probably if [computer hacking] had not happened so recently, I might not be as alarmed." To increasing numbers of people, the country is facing a "privacy Chernobyl," said Robert R. Belair, a Washington-based privacy lawyer and editor of a national newsletter on business privacy. "It doesn't surprise me that the Census Bureau is going to have more trouble this year than before." Unfortunately, some salient facts get lost in the din: The Census Bureau has never suffered a computer-related security breach, experts agree. Its computers are kept separate from other government systems, and respondents' names are separated from personal data when the results are eventually compiled into databases, Census officials say. Moreover, since the 1930s, the Census Bureau, backed by the U.S. Supreme Court, has jealously guarded its records; in 1942, it even rebuffed a demand from the U.S. War Department for information on potential draftees. Census officials, for their part, take the once-a-decade privacy complaints in stride as they collect the statistics for use in redrawing congressional districts and determining federal funding formulas. Questions about household income, for example, are used to estimate the number of subsidized lunches the neighborhood school might have to provide. This year's new question about whether a resident provides primary care for a grandchild is linked to welfare allocations. Maury Cagle, a bureau spokesman, said that even though the agency's confidentiality record is clean, "people have an ingrained suspicion about computers and private information. All of those things add to the falling response rate." The Census Bureau projects its response rate for the 2000 Census will hit its lowest level ever: 61 percent, down from 75 percent in 1980. As the response rate drops, the government has to hire ever more head-counters - "enumerators," in bureau jargon - to brave back streets and barking dogs to get the information personally. This year, the Census Bureau is mounting a $230 million outreach campaign designed to raise the response rate and keep down the expense of enumerators. Still, "people are a little more testy" about giving out personal information than in years past, said Gorden DeJong, director of Pennsylvania State University's Population Research Institute. DeJong and others blame everything: a spate of high-profile computer attacks; rising concerns about confidentiality; a constant if sometimes fluctuating distrust of government; and an ever-widening flood of private surveys and junk mail with which Americans already contend. "For the number of things I get in the mail, I already must be on 50 lists," said Alessandroni, 84, a retired lawyer from Philadelphia. "It's pretty obvious to me that there's no such thing as secrecy. . . . The information is bound to get around." In the last two weeks, either the long form or a separate three-page short form was mailed to 113 million households. An additional 22 million households with incomplete addresses or post office boxes were having their forms hand-delivered. Households that don't return the form by April 1 may get a visit from an enumerator. Every sixth household got a long form. The ratio was set by a scientific sampling formula, and people may not fill out a long form unless they were selected, said Phillip Lutz, assistant regional manager for the Census region comprising Pennsylvania, New Jersey, Maryland, Delaware, and Washington. Each form arrives bearing the bold-faced words: "Your Response is Required by Law." What is not written is the fact that the $100 fine for failing to respond - a fine dating to at least 1954 - apparently has not been imposed in decades, even though federal courts have upheld the constitutionality of the participation law. "We're not interested in fining people. We're interested in collecting information," Lutz said. Still, some people are willing, even eager, to pay the fine rather than give up personal information. "I wrote the number of people living in my house and enclosed a $100 check," said a 41-year-old participant in an Internet chat room about the Census, who spoke on condition that only his first name, Greg, be printed. "Why is it any of their business how I am paying or have paid for my home?" So far, the refusers appear to be in the minority. State and local officials across the country have joined with community and immigrant groups to push for full participation, arguing that the sacrifice pays off in federal funding. Pennsylvania officials have estimated that each person counted in Philadelphia is worth an average of $2,200 in federal funds. "The very people who are not participating need to be counted so they can have government services in their neighborhood," said Kate Kunda, 45, a Spanish teacher from Wayne, Delaware County. As for herself, Kunda added: "I was annoyed that they wanted to know about my electricity bill and mortgage, but we did make an effort to fill it out."

-- another government hack (keepwatching_2000@yahoo.com), March 21, 2000

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