US Census data collection: Beneficial, or intrusive?
November 14, 2013 (CHICAGO) (WLS) -- In this era of super-secret spying, the ABC7 I-Team has found a government data collection program that operates 24/7, right out in the open.
This wide-open intelligence gathering is by the U.S. Census Bureau.
The NSA may secretly collect information on unsuspecting Americans and a few foreign leaders, but the census bureau does it the old-fashioned way: they ask. However, with some surveys, there is nothing voluntary about your answers.
What began in 1790 as a simple headcount of the population every ten years has grown into a far-flung data gathering arm of the government, amassing a national warehouse of personal information.
Each month 250,000 Americans open their mail and to find the American Community Survey.
ACS is a supplement to the customary 10-year census. It isn't a scam, nor is it optional, and that has some people steaming.
"Incredibly creepy and frustrating," said James Davis, survey recipient in Jackson, Mich.
James Davis was so uncomfortable with certain questions, he refused to answer some. Then, just as he was doing the survey by phone, a census worker showed up at his home, he says, aggressively demanding information.
"The man went from the front door to the side door back to the front door pounding on the door saying he needed to talk to me about the census," said Davis.
Some government survey recipients are so riled, they video when a census worker shows up and then post their refusal to answer questions on YouTube.
These encounters contrast smiling promotional videos from the census bureau.
Chicago region census bureau officials say field reps are instructed not to harass, but to not give up easily either.
"Yes because the info is so important that we are persistent in collecting as much as we can," said Gloria Duval, Chicago Region, U.S. Census Bureau.
"Over the years the Census Bureau has been demanding more and more information, way beyond how many people live in your house. Information is power, the more you know about anybody the more control you have," said Steve Stanek, Heartland Institute.
Since Congress approved continual data collection 20 years ago, some conservative policy groups say it's become too intrusive. Each year there are some 100 surveys sent out to businesses and households. Some are voluntary and some are mandatory, such as the ACS, which asks questions such as: What time do you leave for work? How many bedrooms are in your house? Do you have a flush toilet? Does a mental condition impact your ability to shop?
The statutory fine for not answering the ACS is up to $5,000, although the bureau says it has not fined anyone yet for refusing to participate.
"We are held to a high standard to make sure that the information and data is so protected," said Ellisa Johnson, Chicago Region, U.S. Census Bureau.
They even told us not to show inside the office where they're located or videotape employees. And the government insists all personal data is encrypted and could never get in the wrong hands.
So what happens to all of your answers? They are in an immense info-warehouse; crammed with terabytes of data on just about every topic you could imagine, from how much chicken people eat to the driving habits of men versus women.
"People have to understand that the data that is collected drives everything we do in this country," said Johnson.
That tax-funded data-- all numbers and percentages-- is available online for free, and being used every day to determine not only community federal funding, but also private sector investment and retail decision-making.
Officials with the U.S. Census Bureau stress that everyone benefits from these surveys, including local communities. But there are scammers who pose as census workers.
Here's how you can tell if a survey taker is real: census officials say they never ask for your full social security number, a credit card number, access information for bank accounts or any kind of monetary donation.
To verify you are receiving a real survey, you can also contact your regional census office.
American Community Survey: https://www.census.gov/acs
Chicago Regional Office
1 (630) 288-9200 or 1-800-865-6384
Heartland Institute: www.heartland.org
The Rutherford Institute: www.rutherford.org
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