Privacy & Constituency

US Census ACS & Facebook: Cataloging communities one individual at a time. (Both images taken from their respective websites.)A Facebook friend (FBF) and previous coworker of mine has gotten me thinking. FBF was selected to participate in the American Community Survey (ACS) and is very seriously opposed to the idea of giving up his information.

Brief notes on the ACS. Because the impetus for this post came from the ACS, we should get on the same page about what exactly the ACS is. First off, most (maybe all?) of the questions on the ACS used to be a part of the decennial census.  Starting in 2010, the so-called "long form" of the "regular" census disappeared, replaced by the more-frequently-administered, but with-a-smaller-sample-size ACS. It turns out that the frequency offered by the ACS is important: The world changes faster now than it used to. Collecting this information every ten years leaves us high and dry, adequate-research-wise, about five years after the census. If you are unfamiliar with the ACS, please take a moment to look at it. Some links from the US Census Bureau: About the Survey, the questionnaire itself, the use of the population questions, and the use of the housing questions. I'll wait here.


The US, it seems, is at a crisis point even greater than I had previously thought. Citizenship here comes with certain rights and responsibilities. For the sake of simplification and the sake of argument, let's say that chief among those are the right to privacy and the responsibility of membership in multiple constituencies.

On the Right to Privacy. This right is extremely American and extremely important. As a basic civil right afforded to each of us, our "reasonable expectation of privacy" has been defined and defended by the Supreme Court. It is a the center of the debate surrounding the constitutionality of the Patriot Act. It is the reason the police are required to obtain and present a search warrant. Here, the Right to Privacy (RtP) is sacred.

On Constituency. The idea that each individual one of us is both a citizen and a constituent is also extremely American and extremely important. As citizens we are afforded certain protections, services, and rights. As constituents we are also afforded representation in the decision-making processes that determine those protections, services, and rights. While there is tremendous overlap between a citizen and a constituent, they are not the same. Citizenship carries with it a place in the constituency, but in many non-Arizona places constituents include non-citizens and in the District of Columbia citizens aren't necessarily constituents.

Honestly, I am at a loss. I am very scared and deeply saddened. I think my FBF is not a hyper-libertarian. Nor do I think most of the people who commented (there were 45 comments on this status update) are hyper-libertarians. Yet, they wrote the things I will intersperse throughout the remainder of this post. And what most of them had to say seemed to stem from a very real fear of their government, a government that is supposed to be us. I have been writing this post for the last week, drafting arguments and ideas, and I am yet to reach a conclusion. So, here at the risk of sounding alarmist, I offer up yet another current American crisis.

The ACS collects information of utmost relevance to planners and policy makers. Our elected and appointed public servants are charged with the daunting task of allocating funds, creating policies, and providing services to meet the needs of their constituents. The research performed through the ACS is done primarily to describe those needs accurately. (And, again, most of its questions were once part of the long-form of the "real" census.) Furthermore, the publication of the results allows communities to advocate for their needs when they are not adequately met.


The crisis here is the extent to which private citizens do not trust their government with personal information. Ostensibly, information collected by the Census Bureau cannot be shared, and cannot be used for prosecution or any other ill-will. (That's why it's perfectly safe and absolutely necessary for illegal immigrants to fill out the census.) Still, the existence of the Patriot Act does little to assuage the fears of many citizens re the ethical treatment of information by our federal government. And now this is so true that citizens will cite their RtP while opting out of their responsibility as a constituent to provide accurate and timely demographic information. In so doing, they refuse to represent themselves or the constituencies to which they belong. 

This refusal is striking and important (and terrifying and saddening). It amounts to refusing the policies, funds, and services that may result from the collected findings. It amounts to refusing the responsibility to represent not only themselves, but the many Americans like them. It also amounts to willfully refusing the special opportunity to tell decision makers exactly where one's tax dollars should be going. This refusal means one's RtP is more important (requiring more diligent protection) than one's expectation that decision makers would consider the actual needs of actual constituents in making their decisions. 

I was shocked. I knew things were bad, but this bad? I know most Americans believe their government abuses its power to some extent, but to the point of not trusting the Census Bureau? 

This is a crisis point. If decision makers do not have accurate information w/r/t their constituents, they will not make good decisions for us. Without sound decisions based on factual information, we will only distrust them more. Most Americans believe that our politicians are only out for themselves. If we don't tell them what the public needs, we cannot expect them to be public servants. If we value our Right to Privacy above our Responsibilities as Constituents, we have forgotten our social contract. The result is frightening, as we take it to its extreme but logical conclusion, we're staring down the barrel of collapse. These are principles on which the USofA was founded. We balance our freedoms with our obligations, our private lives with our public contributions. If we can't trust our government enough to tell it how we live and therefore what we need, we - together as a collective nation - will fail, because our democracy will not function when we refuse to stand up and be counted.