2 Wants To Know Investigates "The American Community Survey"

10:44 PM, Jun 30, 2011   |    comments
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2 Wants To Know Investigates "The American Community Survey."

Triad-- You tell the world a lot about yourself through your emails, Facebook posts and Tweets.

What if someone from the government started asking personal questions like...Does your house have flushing toilets? What time do you leave for work? How long does it take you to get there?

Those are just three questions from the U.S. Census Bureau's "American Community Survey." 250,000 people receive the survey every month.

98 percent of the recipients fill it out and send it back. It could be because of the warnings printed on it. And, the government threatens huge fines if you don't respond.

Mark Geary (WFMY News 2 Reporter): "If I were to fill this out and give you a roadmap of what time I leave for work, how many cars I own, what my mortgage payment is, where I work, who else lives in the house...That's pretty scary to hand that over to anyone."
Wayne Hatcher (U.S. Census Regional Director): "I have to agree, but again, we have an airtight pledge and we've not had a breach of our security. We're providing this information to help the community, not to hurt an individual."

While the Census Bureau says it hasn't had any issues, plenty of big name companies have had security breaches. Hundreds of thousands of classified military documents became public during the Wiki Leaks scandal. Information is only as secure as the people who have access to it.

If the survey arrives in your mailbox, you must fill it out and send it back. If you don't, you're breaking the law and could face fines up to $5,000...just for refusing to respond. 

If you don't mail the survey back right away, they send another one. If you still don't respond, you get phone calls. Ignore those? A census worker shows up at your door and demands an answer to each personal question.

Mark Geary (WFMY News 2 Reporter): "You can see how people would be apprehensive to fill this out."
Wayne Hatcher (U.S. Census Regional Director): "Absolutely. I can't disagree with you."

Mark Geary (WFMY News 2 Reporter): "Why is it the government's business what time I leave for work? What if I don't want to tell you?"
Wayne Hatcher (U.S. Census Regional Director): "I completely understand that. The reason why we ask that question...That's tied into a whole series of questions about transportation issues that helps determine commuting patterns in different communities throughout the country."

The government argues it can ask you these kinds of questions because the constitution requires a census.

"The constitutional provision is about something specific: how many people live in each state because the constitution says the House is proportional by state population," Elon University Law Professor Eric Fink said.

Instead, the government has used the founding fathers words to force you to answer personal questions.

"The subject matters they've asked questions for have expanded...probably beyond anything someone in 1789 would have contemplated," Fink said.

Katy Parker, the North Carolina ACLU Legal Director said, "What we advise people to do is don't answer questions you don't feel comfortable answering. If the bureau comes back and threatens the individual for not answering, then they should call us immediately. We've never heard back from anyone after providing that advice."

Even though you won't find a mention of this anywhere on the survey, our investigation discovered you can remain somewhat anonymous.

Mark Geary (WFMY News 2 Reporter): "You can leave your name off the survey completely and be fine?"
Wayne Hatcher (U.S. Census Regional Director): "You can put person 1, person 2, person 3. Yes, that would be ok."

However, the bureau still knows your address. It's encoded in the barcode printed on your survey. What about all those fines and threats about not filling out the document? The U.S. Census Bureau admitted to WFMY News 2, "...no one to date has been fined for failure to respond."

Parker said, "Everything is an intrusion into our privacy these days. The ACLU has real concerns about government intrusion into privacy of individuals. The more that we answer questions without questioning whether the government has a right to that information, the more information the government has and it's disturbing."

What does Washington do with all the information? Census Bureau staff members say they use it to figure out which programs need more or less money. Lots of other groups use it, too. Fast food restaurants rely on it to see where they might build new locations. Banks use it to see where they might want to open a new branch.

Right now, some members of Congress are trying to make the survey optional.

If you'd like to see an electronic version of the American Community Survey and a list of all the questions, click here.

To learn more about the survey, visit the U.S. Census Bureau's official website.


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