Officially, Seltzer notes, the Secret Service made the 1943 request based on concerns of presidential safety stemming from an alleged March 1942 incident during which an American man of Japanese ancestry, while on a train from Los Angeles to the Manzanar internment camp in Owens Valley, Calif., told another passenger that they should have the "guts" to kill President Franklin Delano Roosevelt.
The incident occurred 17 months before the Secret Service request, during which time the man was hospitalized for schizophrenia and was therefore not an imminent threat, Seltzer says.
The disclosure, while legal at the time, was ethically dubious and may have implications for the 2010 census, the researchers write in a paper presented today at the annual meeting of the Population Association of America held in New York City. The U.S. has separate agencies for collecting statistical information about what people and businesses do, and for so-called administrative functions—taxation, regulation and investigation of those activities.
"There has to be a firewall in some sense between those systems," Anderson says. If a company submits information ostensibly for documenting national economic growth but the data ends up in the antitrust division, "the next time that census comes they're not going to get that information," she says.
Census data is routinely used to enforce the National Voting Rights Act and other policies, but not in a form that could be used to identify a particular person's race, sex, age, address or other information, says former director Prewitt. The legal confidentiality of census information dates to 1910, and in 1954 it became part of Title 13 of the U.S. Code, which specifies the scope and frequency of censuses.
"The law is very different today" than it was in 1943, says Christa Jones, chief of the Census Bureau's Office of Analysis and Executive Support. "Anything that we release to any federal agency or any organization all of those data are reviewed," she says, to prevent disclosures of individual information.
The Census Bureau provided neighborhood data on Arab-Americans to the U.S. Department of Homeland Security in 2002, but the information was already publicly available, Jones says. A provision in the controversial Patriot Act—passed after the 9/11 attacks and derided by critics as an erosion of privacy—gives agencies access to individualized survey data collected by colleges, including flight training programs.
The Census Bureau has improved its confidentiality practices considerably in the last six decades, former director Prewitt says. He notes that census data is an increasingly poor source of surveillance data compared with more detailed information available from credit card companies and even electronic tollbooths.
Nevertheless, he says, "I think the Census Bureau has to bend over backwards to maintain the confidence and the trust of the public." Public suspicion—well-founded or not—could undermine the collection accurate census data, which is used by sociologists, economists and public health researchers, he says.
"I'm sad to learn it," he says of the new discovery. "It would be sadder yet to continue to deny that it happened, if, as now seems clear, it did happen. You cannot learn from and correct past mistakes unless you know about them."