Archive for the ‘American Community Survey’ 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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GOP Representatives in the House have prepared legislation to alter the American Community Survey.  Unsurprisingly, people who obviously have not dealt with the ACS in their own lives are upset by this.  There is a lot of whining on various policy blogs & etc. about “How will we KNOOOOOW where to spend tax dollars!”  See– http://www.governing.com/blogs/view/census-american-community-survey-house-vote.html; http://thehill.com/blogs/congress-blog/civil-rights/226165-dont-count-out-the-american-community-survey; http://www.tucsonsentinel.com/opinion/report/051512_acs_gop_op/killing-community-survey-bad-govt-and-business/; and a bunch of ridiculous “the earth will stop”-hysteria over at the New York Times that I won’t link to.  I don’t care how “useful” it may be to businesses or gov’t– NOT the point.  My individual privacy and freedoms are worth much, much more than being a data point in some pinheaded report for ANY agency or business.

The House bill passed its first journey, according to a Cato Institute blurb (that doesn’t get too much wrong, although they don’t seem to understand that the ACS has been brewing long before 2005): http://www.cato-at-liberty.org/useful-idiots-and-the-american-community-survey/

I don’t have much optimism about this bill going into the Senate, however.

None of the writers or commentors on this article seem to have any actual experience with either receiving the ACS, or actually *reading* the thing to see if they REALLY would fill it out.  Somehow, I think any reasonable individual would NOT appreciate being asked for all this information and would think seriously before letting a gov’t agency just have it– especially given Census’ past actions in disclosing this supposedly protected information that resulted in harm and harrassment of U.S. citizens (1942 and 2002 are verified, who knows how many other instances there are?).

Government cannot and SHOULD NOT be solving or think it needs to solve all the problems.  Yes, we need some government, and we need the government to enforce the laws that protect citizens.  When the government starts picking and choosing the laws it enforces (or for who it enforces them), we are in serious trouble.  We’re there now, and I don’t need the gov’t knowing *anything* about my private, law-abiding life.  ZERO.

That said, I am happy to see that some people in Congress are paying attention.

Now, although I believe that just ending the ACS would be a good thing, could the ACS actually be fixed?  Perhaps, with careful oversight and people dedicated to seeing that various statutes effecting the collection of citizens’ personal information are upheld.  Maybe.  First, remove any names from the survey.  If the survey is truly based on a “randomly chosen address” then THAT and only THAT ADDRESS as the only information– leave off the names, but have, say, Resident 1, Resident 2, etc.  Then, ditch the personal schedule questions, the income questions, the employer questions, the ethnicity questions…. hmmm, this appears to indicate that we could just ditch the ACS altogether.  When it comes to my personal information, I don’t care if it is “useful” or “helpful” for a gov’t agency to know– it is simply none of their business.  Commuting information?  What do you think those car-counter wires across streets are doing.  Why are they so interested in what languages we use in our home?  Did you know this has been used against citizens before, to intimidate and harrass or imprision?  WWI and II.

And let’s face it, like any self-reported information (or worker-gathered information)– there are serious quality issues.  The quality of these reports is only as good as the reported information, which for various reasons is more likely than not inflated or minimized, not reported, etc.  For instance– the information they have for my survey is ALL INACCURATE– because I did not give them anything and what they tried to use is INCORRECT.  So, for my address, the whole entry is bunk.  Useless.

And incorrect data is sometimes even worse than no data at all.  So I say, scrap it.  Just collect the number of residents and be done with it, as mandated by the Constitution.



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So, finally, my ACS harrassment seems to have ended.  While as recently as April 3 I was still receiving the “out of area” hang-up phone calls (ie, no one left a message), they have since stopped.  (Yay.)

Unfortunately, however, there are some people who are just too helpful.  On March 31st, after 8pm, my doorbell began ringing and pounding on the door commenced as well.  Unfortunately, my neighbor’s elderly mother had been taking out her trash and the ACS worker began pumping this elderly Ethopian lady for information.  (My neighbors had been warned about this, but my neighbor hadn’t told her mom, who was visiting.)  I ended up screaming through the door at the ACS worker.  So, all they have is a name (incorrect), an approximate age (incorrect), number of people in my household (unverified) and a vague racial category (incorrect).  They sent a different ACS worker back the next weekend, who tried to interrogate another neighbor, who shut the door in his face.  (THANK YOU!) 

Major FAIL.  Just don’t play.  Don’t answer, don’t talk, do not engage.  If you live in a single family home, shred all documents before putting them out for trash pickup.  They are known to go through garbage/recycling.  If you receive an ACS form, scrub your web information, including job networking sites.  If you know someone who has received Census ACS greetings, encourage them to think about it and do research prior to participating.  Contrary to Census assertions, we are a free country and citizens DO NOT have to open the door to any gov’t employee wandering by.  If I do not wish to associate with you, I don’t have to.  (Census is not law enforcement, and they have NO RIGHT to trespass if the property owner makes it clear they are not welcome and will not be tolerated.)

The limited data they think they have is USELESS.  It is not correct.  There is no way to put ANY of the ACS data through a quality-control process.

Any data that cannot be checked for accuracy is useless, thereby making any reports using ACS data pretty much equally useless.

The Census Bureau has, according to the GAO, exceeded it statutory authority with the ACS.  Sooner or later, someone with some authority will actually slap this rogue agency back into compliance with both Federal statute and Constitutional limits.  May that day be soon.

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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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My ACS timeline:

November, 2011.  Received the pre-survey materials from CB.  These have a heavy emphasis on “mandatory” responses and lots of rah-rah about how this information “helps” communities. 

Received the ACS.  Included were the looong instruction booklet and more “you have to fill this out, its the LAW” language.  Hmmm.  Reviewed the survey.  Got back up off the floor a couple of times during the review.  NO way can they require me to tell them this personal stuff.  NO. WAY.  Decision made to save everything. 

December, 2011.  Another letter from CB stating they hadn’t received my ACS form.  Another ACS form sent.  Looked up the “penalty” in Title XIII.  Congress set it at $100.  Period.  Not per question.  Just $100.

February 1, 2012.  Oh, look how lucky I am. 4:15pm, my CB stalker called my *unlisted* home number to say he was in my building, left an ACS packet with a sticker on the back of the envelope stating he was “required to make contact.”  At 9:02 pm, without a call announcing him (I’m guessing he ‘piggybacked’ his way into the building and did not stop at the front desk) he rang the doorbell and called the home number again, left message that he was at the door.

February 3, 2012.  Phone call without a message from 920-area code.  This is eastern Wisconsin.  I don’t know anyone at the moment in eastern Wisconsin.  I believe I’d had some calls from this number before, but as there are never messages and I do not answer calls from unknown numbers, I still don’t know.  I’m not calling the number and I don’t go around snooping.

February 5, 2012.  Sunday, 2:16 pm.  Another call/door visit from my CB stalker, according to the voicemail.  Shoved another ACS packet through my door.

February 6, 2012.  Two calls, 10:17 am and 6:39 am.  “Out of area”, no number, no message.  CB stalker rang the doorbell at 8:39 pm. 

February 7, 2012.  7:23 am Networking profile viewed.  9:24 am “Out of area”, no number, no message.  4:13 pm “Out of area”, no number, no message.

February 8, 2012.  12:22 pm.  Call from 310 California area code, voicemail in Spanish trying to convince me to complete the ACS.  Switched to English to say “Relax. Take a deep breath…”  12:32 pm.   “Out of area”, no number, no message.  6:53 pm.   “Out of area”, no number, no message.

February 9, 2012.  9:31 am.   “Out of area”, no number, no message.  1:01 pm.  1:02 pm.  CB stalker, no message.  4:31 pm.   “Out of area”, no number, no message.

February 10, 2012.  8:58 am.   “Out of area”, no number, no message.  3:30 pm.  “Out of area”, no number, no message.  7:35 pm. “Out of area”, no number, no message.

February 11, 2012.     9:39 am.   “Out of area”, no number, no message.  2:03 pm.  “Out of area”, no number, no message.  4:14 pm.  “Out of area”, no number, no message.

February 12, 2012.  2:46 pm.   “Out of area”, no number, no message.  4:48 pm.   “Out of area”, no number, no message.  7:19 pm.   “Out of area”, no number, no message.

February 13, 2012.  10:31 am.  “Out of area”, no number, no message.  11:32 am.  920-area code number again.  No message.  6:00pm.  Front desk of my building (actually had several hang-ups from the desk starting before 5:30pm).  CB stalker most likely in the lobby, as no message was left.  7:01 pm.  CB stalker, no message, but at least he didn’t get past the lobby.  Hey, this is new– letter to address, name incorrect from the Regional Supervisor.  I’ll fisk this in a later post.

February 14, 2012.  9:28 am. “Out of area”, no number, no message.

February 15, 2012.  10:32 am.  “Out of area”, no number, no message.      

Now, *why* in the world would they be so persistent?  If this were truly a “random sample,” any well-designed sample takes into account non-response and has additional draws ready to go.  Surely, they *must* understand that people are going to balk at all this personal info.  The sample should have that percentage built into it– IF IT TRULY WAS A PROFESSIONALLY-DESIGNED RANDOM SAMPLE.  That, I don’t know.

So, 15 days into the harrassment cycle and we can see the level of attempted intimidation and harrassment.  As I have chosen non-engagement, I don’t know what the CB stalker’s script is, but from other accounts I’ve read, it’s design is to get people to involuntarily respond with information bits the CB stalker can use to fill out more lines of the ACS for that person.  More on the reasons I’ve gone the non-engagement route later as well. 

If you would like to comment, I am more than happy to accept anony. stories.  Watch the personal information in them.  I would discourage the use of CB stalkers’ names because that will narrow the pool of those of us trying to publicize what they are doing and I don’t want anyone threatened or harrassed any more than has already happened.

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