U.S. History of Census Data Abuse

The United States Census Bureau collects and produces data about the American people and economy. With such data, it becomes easier to map and visualize the areas of improvement, populations in need, as well as social progress. The census data is collected through extensive efforts, and Americans reap its benefits by ensuring government funding and services are distributed equitably across geographies and populations. The U.S. government relies on information collected by the census to improve the lives of racial minorities. Yet, at the same time, historical misuse of the data to discriminate against racial minorities has concerned many groups across the country.  

During WWII, when Japan bombed the Pearl Harbor, the U.S. government used census data to identify people of Japanese heritage in the country. After locating them, the government detained and incarcerated people of Japanese descent, many of whom were Japanese-Americans. About 120,000 people were wrongfully imprisoned in remote camps that were labeled as “relocation centers” and “internment camps.” The 1940 Census of Population report was what the government used extensively to locate the targeted people and remove them from their homes. 

A more recent history of census data abuse was targeted towards Arab-Americans in the aftermath of the September 11 attacks. The Census Bureau generated tabulations of specialized data on Arab-Americans at the request of the Department of Homeland Security for national security purposes. The data covered detailed demographic information, such as the list of cities with more than 1,000 Arab-Americans, and number of people of Arab descent by ZIP codes

As long as the Census does not identify an individual, sharing of demographic information with other government agencies is considered legal. However, civil liberty groups argue that producing such detailed statistics on targeted minority groups is unethical, and many were reminded of the oppressive use of census data against Japanese Americans during WWII.  

Both records of census data misuse occurred amidst public hysteria after foreign attacks. These stories serve as cautionary tales that while data can be a powerful tool to create social change, it can also be a weapon of the state. It is during times where the public feels threatened and vulnerable that the government waged their data against those who needed protection from public discrimination the most. To prevent data abuse in the future, the Census Bureau has been working to protect privacy. One can only hope that the Census’ efforts will mitigate the possibility of data being deployed against those in need.