Archive for the ‘American Community Survey background’ Category

While the current administration is the least transparent Executive office in U.S. history, Americans do seem to be getting some traction in the concerns over the Census Bureau.  As a result of the Congressional hearings held last year regarding the American Community Survey, Census social scientists have been busy little FTEs (Fed-speak for Full Time Employees) in attempting to address “testimony that the Census Bureau repeatedly contacted households that did not want to participate” (2013_Zelenak_01, p. iii).  The studies generated in 2013 are very illuminating, giving the American public a view into this agency’s mindset, methods, and what we, U.S. taxpayers, can expect in 2014 ACS harassment.

As one might expect, they COMPLETLY.  MISS. THE. CENTRAL. PROBLEMS.  Consider this statement from another in the memoranda series following the Congressional hearings:

“In Congressional testimony about the mandatory nature of the American Community Survey (ACS), it became clear that Congressional staff were advocating on behalf of constituents who felt “harassed” due to multiple efforts by the Census Bureau to obtain interviews. These repeated contacts with sample households is a consequence of multiple mailings, repeated telephone call attempts using Computer Assisted Telephone Interviewing (CATI) methods, and potential personal visits using Computer Assisted Personal Interviewing (CAPI) methods. The ACS, like other household surveys, strives to maximize response to achieve the highest levels of quality by reducing the potential for nonresponse bias. In some instances, households could certainly perceive these multiple contacts and multiple modes of contact as harassment.” (2013_Griffin_01, p. 1, emphasis added)

Oh, why, don’t those unenlightened teeming millions understand the Census Bureau is acting for their benefit??

All the sarcasm aside, the *fundamental flaws* of the ACS consists of:  1)  the survey design; 2)  the ‘mandatory’ designation of the ACS; and 3)  the security of the data collected.  First and foremost, the design of the survey is seriously flawed.  The Privacy Act specifically provides that Personal Identifying Information gathered by Federal agencies may NOT be stored in a way that identifies any persons.  The ACS collects and then uses names attached to the selected addresses and the data is STORED BY NAME and ADDRESS. Such storage in easily-accessed databases are *prohibited* under the Privacy Act.  There would be fewer problems in this data collection if the ACS were to be modified to the survey number associated with the address.  DON’T collect names, period.  In this age of identity theft, DON’T ask for employer names and addresses, or the time an address leaves for work.  Come to think on it, you could cut out at least a third of the questions on the whole survey, which would increase a response rate, and probably generate some more reliable data.  As it is, there is simply NO method to really verify any of this data, essentially making this a busy-work endeavor to maintain a bloated and useless bureaucracy.  Making and intrusive and unsecured survey like this mandatory was the idea of social scientists (National Academy of Sciences) who were tasked with developing suggestions to increase the response rate of the ACS.  Making this worse are the new and ‘improved’ questions in the 2014 survey which demands to know about health insurance coverage.  Like Census isn’t gonna share this with the IRS.  Anyone want to buy a bridge?  Although Census claims they have a “97%” response rate for the ACS, other estimates indicate this is probably grossly inflated and the actual response rate is more around 40%.  But the program needs to publically demonstrate it is “effective” and so they are counting “partial interviews” in the completed category.  A “partial interview” usually contains even LESS accurate information than voluntary submissions, especially if it is based on neighbor interviews, trash scrounging, ACS encouragement of false responses, etc.  These abuses of U.S. citizens and their privacy needs to be stopped.  NOW.

There is no actual necessity to make this a mandatory survey, except that bureaucrats were unhappy that no one wants to answer these ridiculous questions.  We have private marketing research firms that already do enough of this stuff.  It also seems not much importance was attached to the survey, as the fine for not answering the ACS is $100.  Period.  (See my earlier Title 13 analysis)  The Census Bureau nattering on about a $5,000 fine attempts to scare people into answering the questions by trying to tie a completely different statute onto the actual statute involving Federal ability to request additional fines on conviction.  They think we’re idiots (another underlying fault of this waste of money)– the American people do not need to be ‘managed.’  We are free people, able to make both good and bad decisions– this is called LIFE.  Even if the Census Bureau ever attempted to prosecute anyone for not responding to the ACS, they could ask the Federal judge to impose the further fine following a conviction, but as they have NEVER brought anyone to court, it highly unlikely.  Also, the Bureau has absolutely *no* authority to impose the fine on its own, but must actually prosecute in Federal court in order to collect it.  For a statutory $100 fine, DOJ isn’t interested.  A 2002 GAO memo to Rep. Bob Barr stated that “[u]sing information provided by OMB, we found no other government surveys that respondents are required to fill out that request specific, detailed personal information similar to that required by the ACS.  The only information collections that met the conditions of being required or mandatory and affecting individuals or households for statistical or research purposes were those related to the 2000 decennial censuses, including the ACS.” (GAO to Congressman Bob  Barr, 4/4/2002, emphasis added)

Even more troubling is the apparent cavalier attitude taken to ACS data security.  A 2007 GAO report lists hundreds of laptops missing (What happened to the data?); and multiple incidents of survey information being published on public websites.  Who are the employees who allowed this to happen?  Who are their supervisors?  What were the punishments??  No mention of convictions or jail time — or even of firings — are mentioned.

Census is playing differently in 2014.  While they may have reduced the number of calls to a residence, I have the feeling the pressure and tactics of “personal interviewers” is going to be much nastier and prolonged.  This time, I’m ready.  I’m not playing.  Neither are my neighbors.

References I’ve cited above and much, much more can be found at this enlightening little page:  http://www.census.gov/acs/www/library/by_series/acs_research_evaluation_program/

The papers here are excellent material to gain insight into bureaucrats run amok.


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Back in 2006, CB was ready to roll out the American Community Survey after almost a decade of fiddling around with the program.  In order for any Federal agency to maintain databases with PII (personally-identifiable information), the Privacy Act requires a Federal Register notice outlining the purpose, scope, and protections for each PII database.  The full notice can be viewed here

However, this notice exposes the deficencies of the ACS database.  The Privacy Act requires that databases containing PII (Personally Identifiable Information) use an identifier that is separate from any PII to maintain the data.  Contrary to statutory requirements, the ACS Privacy Act notice clearly states that the ACS database will maintained by NAME and ADDRESS.  Additionally, there are no restrictions on the computers, cds, portable drives, etc. on which ACS data is stored.  This means ACS data could be on any computer with internet or wireless capabilities, unencrypted cds or portable drives, cloud accessible computers, etc.

If you aren’t scared now, you have never been a victim of id-theft, or have never worked with secured data.  I have.  The holes in this system you could pilot the space shuttle (if we had any operational ones left) through.  There have already been multiple thefts of Census Bureau notebooks & drives, and postings of ACS data on PUBLIC websites by employees.

“Your data is secure.”  Yeah, and I’ve got a bridge in some swampland that’s selling cheap as well. 

The data is IN NO WAY secure.  Unless Census starts taking PII security seriously, no sane person would ever fill this form out.  Look, I’m actually not an IT security person, but I do understand the difference between secure and unsecured data.  I can also find no evidence of who can look at or manage the PII data– Census Bureau FTEs only?  Contractors with security clearances?  Do the ACS employees have HSPD12 (cleared) credentials?  Their laptops seem to be wireless– what kind of connections are they running?  What kind of security does the data they do get in the field have, if any?

Again, just don’t even play.  This is identity theft waiting to happen.



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The upshot of my Section 141 analysis is that CB has exceeded its statutory authority in its de-facto substitution of a “special survey” for THE decennial census long form.  CB has stated that the ACS does *not* help them to gather data for updating Congressional districts/representation– which is the sole purpose for the decennial census.  Nothing in Section 141 allows for this.

However, let’s continue to look at the other two sections CB uses to force citizens and legal residents to answer questions about their private lives.  

Title 13, Subchapter 5, Section 193 (13 USC Sec. 193)reads in its entirety: 

“In advance of, in conjunction with, or after the taking of each census provided for by this chapter, the Secretary may make surveys and collect such preliminary and supplementary statistics related to the main topic of the census as are necessary to the initiation, taking, or completion thereof.”

  • Well.  Now that the ACS is now viewed by the CB as “replacing” the decennial census long form, how can we interpret CB’s citation of this section as one of the ACS authorities?  Does this simply allow CB to follow up with anything they feel needs “clarification?”  Additional PII mining, or more even more intrusive surveys?  Where does it end?  However, in view of the ACS exceeding the provision of Section 141, all these additional surveys when based on the ACS would also not be covered under this section. 

Title 13, Chapter 7, Subchapter II, Section 221 (13 USC Sec. 221) reads:

“(a) Whoever, being over eighteen years of age, refuses or willfully neglects, when requested by the Secretary, or by any other authorized officer or employee of the Department of Commerce or bureau or agency thereof acting under the instructions of the Secretary or authorized officer, to answer, to the best of his knowledge, any of the questions on any schedule submitted to him in connection with any census or survey provided for by subchapters I, II, IV, and V of chapter 5 of this title, applying to himself or to the family to which he belongs or is related, or to the farm or farms of which he or his family is the occupant, shall be fined not more than $100.
(b) Whoever, when answering questions described in subsection (a) of this section, and under the conditions or circumstances described in such subsection, willfully gives any answer that is false, shall be fined not more than $500.
(c) Notwithstanding any other provision of this title, no person shall be compelled to disclose information relative to his religious beliefs or to membership in a religious body.”  [emphasis added]
  • Here we go, kids.  Once all the little clauses are stripped from the language, the plain meaning of the text of paragraphs a) and b) are that:  1)  Failure to answer any of the questions results in a fine of not more than $100; and 2) Giving false answers results in a fine of not more than $500.  Unless there is clarification in the legislative history, it would appear that $100 is the maximum fine for failure to respond.  The language simply does NOT read “per question.”  The section is ambiguous enough that this point could be easily argued.  Paragraph b) has the same problem.  Giving a false answer to a ACS question is definitely a less desirable route than simply a non-response.  Given this situation, it is very intriguing that CB supervisors (in the few MSM stories that can be found on the subject) have actually encouraged people to put down made up or inaccurate information.  (Such as here— please note that this article also documents CB threats for noncompliance.  They have never followed through.  Also a story here from the Chicago Trib, note that once the light of publicity was shining on the harrassment, it stopped.)

The Census Bureau also attempts to link a maximum $5k fine from a completely different (and earlier, so don’t let anyone tell you that Sec. 221 was “amended” with this because that is not the case) statute for post-conviction fines.  I have no doubt they would attempt to get such a fine if anyone ever was hauled before a Federal judge on ACS non response.  Given the number of people who already have chosen not to play (or have given patently false answers) without prosecution, such a scenario is presently remote. 

So, sections 193 and 221 would be in play, if and only IF, Census had not extended the ACS past its section 141 statutory authority.  As previously stated, section 141 does not give CB the authority to make a special survey into a replacement for any part of the decennial census– especially because they are not confining the ACS to a decennial or even mid-decade format– the ACS is a continual, “rolling” survey of expanding proportions.  The statutory authority for this just doesn’t exist.  (If it indeed does, please send along any other links or analyses for that.  I am NOT finding it.)

And the more people who are aware of this and object to it, the more remote the $100/$500 penalties will become.

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This is very helpful.  CB has published all the various permutations and editions of the ACS online.  You can go see the information being demanded from their “random sample” HERE

If you are not already “sampled” and are currently reading up on this topic, please read these documents with some food for thought:

  • There is NO security classification on the main database, per CB’s 2006 Privacy Act notice.  (I’ll chase down the information, but I believe the ACS database was designed by Lockheed Martin.)
  • Your information would be maintained by NAME and ADDRESS.  (Contrary to the Privacy Act.)
  • Although I have a piece of correspondence assuring me that their information is encrypted, their Privacy Act notice does NOT state this.  Nor does it state how data is protected on the internet (because I very much doubt that ACS workers have internet-disabled laptops, or that the data in the regional offices is on secured and internet-inaccessible servers.)
  • Contrary to anything Census may say now, they are responsible for sharing their “confidential” information with other agencies to the detriment and violation of citizen and legal residents’ civil rights– Japanese (and Germans?) in WWII and Arab-Americans after 9/11.  The wall of protection seems very very low indeed– they should have fought those requests tooth & nail.  They didn’t.  Think about how easy this database is to access with the way the PII data is stored. 
  • And how about all those CB laptops gone missing?  ACS data actually posted– several times— on public websites??  How is this being addressed?  Anyone?  Anyone? 

If you are already “in the hopper,” so to speak, keep these facts in mind.  I have also read stories where people who did the ACS once now receive it *every* year.  Oooh, no.  See how quickly this “required” stuff gets worse and worse?

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Right.  As promised, here is the statute on which the Census Bureau is hanging its authority to conduct the American Community Survey.  Title XIII or 13, Chapter 5 contains the authorities granted the Census Bureau by Congress.  The full Chapter can be accessed here:  http://www.law.cornell.edu/uscode/text/13/chapter-5

The section where CB thinks it has authority for everything they want to do with the American Community survey is in Subchapter II, especially Section 141 (there are two others as well).  This is how it reads [my comments are indented and italicized]:

(a) The Secretary shall, in the year 1980 and every 10 years thereafter, take a decennial census of population as of the first day of April of such year, which date shall be known as the “decennial census date”, in such form and content as he may determine, including the use of sampling procedures and special surveys. In connection with any such census, the Secretary is authorized to obtain such other census information as necessary.
  • Well, right off the mark we get into broad and undefined mention of “special surveys.”  CB is Constitutionally limited to a headcount in order to draw Congressional districts.  Period.  What other census information did Congress think CB would be wanting?  Too broad, too undefined in this paragraph.
(b) The tabulation of total population by States under subsection (a) of this section as required for the apportionment of Representatives in Congress among the several States shall be completed within 9 months after the census date and reported by the Secretary to the President of the United States.
  • Fine.  Give them a timeline to get their mission accomplished.
(c) The officers or public bodies having initial responsibility for the legislative apportionment or districting of each State may, not later than 3 years before the decennial census date, submit to the Secretary a plan identifying the geographic areas for which specific tabulations of population are desired. Each such plan shall be developed in accordance with criteria established by the Secretary, which he shall furnish to such officers or public bodies not later than April 1 of the fourth year preceding the decennial census date. Such criteria shall include requirements which assure that such plan shall be developed in a nonpartisan manner. Should the Secretary find that a plan submitted by such officers or public bodies does not meet the criteria established by him, he shall consult to the extent necessary with such officers or public bodies in order to achieve the alterations in such plan that he deems necessary to bring it into accord with such criteria. Any issues with respect to such plan remaining unresolved after such consultation shall be resolved by the Secretary, and in all cases he shall have final authority for determining the geographic format of such plan. Tabulations of population for the areas identified in any plan approved by the Secretary shall be completed by him as expeditiously as possible after the decennial census date and reported to the Governor of the State involved and to the officers or public bodies having responsibility for legislative apportionment or districting of such State, except that such tabulations of population of each State requesting a tabulation plan, and basic tabulations of population of each other State, shall, in any event, be completed, reported, and transmitted to each respective State within one year after the decennial census date.
  • State/local authorities can request special attention to areas which may be in need of redistricting.  Population counts in the decennial census.  Fine.
(d) Without regard to subsections (a), (b), and (c) of this section, the Secretary, in the year 1985 and every 10 years thereafter, shall conduct a mid-decade census of population in such form and content as he may determine, including the use of sampling procedures and special surveys, taking into account the extent to which information to be obtained from such census will serve in lieu of information collected annually or less frequently in surveys or other statistical studies. The census shall be taken as of the first day of April of each such year, which date shall be known as the “mid-decade census date”.
  • Here we go with what CB has now interpreted to mean “we can do and ask anything we want.”  Cleverly written to encompass the undefined “special surveys” which Congress apparently did not limit to the mid-decade census.  However, in the later section, we see that there is indeed a limiting definition to all of this…
(1) If—

(A) in the administration of any program established by or under Federal law which provides benefits to State or local governments or to other recipients, eligibility for or the amount of such benefits would (without regard to this paragraph) be determined by taking into account data obtained in the most recent decennial census, and
(B) comparable data is obtained in a mid-decade census conducted after such decennial census,
then in the determination of such eligibility or amount of benefits the most recent data available from either the mid-decade or decennial census shall be used.
(2) Information obtained in any mid-decade census shall not be used for apportionment of Representatives in Congress among the several States, nor shall such information be used in prescribing congressional districts.
(f) With respect to each decennial and mid-decade census conducted under subsection (a) or (d) of this section, the Secretary shall submit to the committees of Congress having legislative jurisdiction over the census—
(1) not later than 3 years before the appropriate census date, a report containing the Secretary’s determination of the subjects proposed to be included, and the types of information to be compiled, in such census;
(2) not later than 2 years before the appropriate census date, a report containing the Secretary’s determination of the questions proposed to be included in such census; and
(3) after submission of a report under paragraph (1) or (2) of this subsection and before the appropriate census date, if the Secretary finds new circumstances exist which necessitate that the subjects, types of information, or questions contained in reports so submitted be modified, a report containing the Secretary’s determination of the subjects, types of information, or questions as proposed to be modified.
  • Some important waffle here.  paragraph 3 is providing the Census Bureau with a mechanism to report back to Congress and request additional authorities due to “new circumstances…which necessitate…types of information, or questions as proposed” be modified (or new surveys instituted).  Hmmm.  Ok, if this authority would be predicated on reports, well, time to do more research and see just what reports have been sent along and what they contain.
(g) As used in this section, “census of population” means a census of population, housing, and matters relating to population and housing. 
  • And CB is drawing “matters relating to population and housing” very very very broadly indeed.  When does infrastructure, or hospitals, or schools, etc. intersect with a census of population and housing?  What does an individual’s income, or racial/ethnic makeup, or marital status, or time one leaves for work, or utility bills, or in fact almost ALL the ACS questions have to do with a census of population or housing.  Housing stuff is easily obtained from local jurisdictions.  The rest, well… do you really trust a CB contractor without a security clearance or HSPD12 badge?  If you do, then go ahead and volunteer for this.  I decline to participate in any more buracratic insanity than absolutely necessary, ie NOT this.

This is the first section CB cites to in its ACS material.  The two other Title XIII sections will be examined in a later post.  A full legislative history of Section 141 would be very interesting to put together to see if Congress actually understood the broadness of the authority they were giving away.  I can’t bring myself to believe at this moment, without the research, that they *meant* to have surveys with such intrusive PII questions done on a continual basis by Census.  But I used to be even more of an optimist than that and this is why research and analysis is so important to countering the ACS. 

Further, in reading more of CB’s material, they are stating (not proposing– stating) that the ACS has replaced the decennial census long form.  THERE IS NO STATUTORY AUTHORITY FOR THIS.  No language in Section 141 allows a “special survey” to replace the decennial census.  The decennial census *cannot* be replaced– that would take either additional amendment of this Section or a new Section altogether.  The use of the ACS is improper and contrary to statutory authority provided for in Section 141. 

UPDATE, 2/17:  As I had feared, it does appear that the terms “population and housing” in Section 141 have indeed morphed into catch-alls for any information CB decides it wants to track.  This .pdf from the University of Kentucky includes a little table on page 1 that notes “Population Characteristics” and “Housing Characteristics.”  Changing the function of the terms “population” and “housing” from a census descriptor into an adjective defining characteristics appears to be quite beyond the approved authorities of this section.  (Link here)

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