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'Trust us.' Yeah, right

| Sunday, May 14, 2006

Unless one already has landed in your mailbox, you probably don't know or care that the American Community Survey exists.

But each year citizens who live at 3 million American addresses -- selected at random by the U.S. Census Bureau -- must fill out the survey and share some of their most-private personal, financial and housing information with their trusty federal government.

The ACS, an annual supplement to the traditional 10-year census, is mandatory and backed up by steep fines. It debuted in 2003 and goes to 1 in 40 unlucky households each year.

Addressed only to "Resident" but requiring the name and phone number of the person filling it out, it contains about 70 nosey questions over 24 pages.

What data do the feds demand• Besides the usual obsession about the race, ethnicity, language, disabilities, education levels and employment status of each human living at the address, you mean?

How about how many bedrooms and cars you have• Whether you have flush toilets• What your property is worth• What your mortgage payments are?

Or what your income was in the last year -- plus where it came from• Whether anyone in the household has used food stamps in the last 12 months -- plus the dollar total• What time you leave home to go to work each day?

The ACS is designed, as explained with touching innocence at , to merely provide "decision-makers, communities and businesses" with more timely and relevant information about their changing populations. Sure it is.

When the ACS first appeared, a few libertarian types like John Whitehead of the Rutherford Institute and U.S. Rep. Ron Paul of Texas raised the obvious Big Brotherly concerns. America yawned.

No surprise there. These days, only kooks who still worship the Constitution and personal freedom fret about such things. Anyway, how could another government survey really hurt anything?

Banks, credit agencies, marketing companies -- not to mention the college loan people, Social Security, your HMO, your state and local governments -- already know everything important about you and your lifestyle.

The U.S. Census Bureau, of course, promises that it will keep all your private info absolutely confidential -- for life. And federal law guarantees it.

Most Americans swallow that naive myth. Would they be as confident if future American Community Surveys started asking how many guns you have• Whether you own any gold coins• Smoke dope• Had an abortion• Believe in God?

Paranoia, you say• OK, what if the Bush administration suddenly demanded to know where all of the country's 340,000 Iranian Americans live -- and how many terrorist-age sons they have• Think the lifer bureaucrats at Census would dive for their delete keys or hit "send"?

Can't happen here in America, you say• It already did. In 1941 and 1942, the Census Bureau eagerly turned over its data to help the War Department round up and intern 110,000 Japanese-Americans on the West Coast.

Today's Census bosses say not to worry. Stronger safeguards are in place. But the FBI, Homeland Security, NSA, etc., can be pretty pushy in a national crisis.

Anyone with a history book knows it doesn't matter what governments promise. All governments, even American ones, have broken their word, ignored their laws or violated their constitutions at the drop of a hat -- or a bomb. Mining the data collected in ACS surveys will be inevitable -- and far more dangerous than collecting a few billion phone numbers.

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