The 2020 Census and Your Privacy ~ What You Should Know

The 2020 Census is coming! In exactly one month, households will begin receiving official Census Bureau mail with detailed info on how to respond to the Census online, by phone, or by mail. The online and telephone response options are available starting March 12.

More than 1,000 advertisements designed to reach 99% of U.S. households will advertise the coming of the census in English and 12 other languages over the next couple of months.

You may be surprised to learn that the U.S. Constitution requires the government to count every person living in the country once a decade.

The report compiled using census statistics is called the American Community Survey (ACS). The American Community Survey (ACS) is the premier source for detailed population and housing information about the United States.

How Census Data is Used

Modern census facts and figures are commonly used for research, business marketing, and planning. The changes over time can cause a ripple effect. Info from the census survey gets broken down to a neighborhood-like level.

The census may show that the population is migrating from large cities to the suburbs and smaller cities which will affect consumer preferences.

Homebuilders, police departments, and town and city planners are among the many private- and public-sector decision-makers who count on these annual results to plan services and policies: from building roads,2 deciding where highways are expanded, building power plants to attracting jobs and planning emergency evacuations. These statistics help determine how federal funding is spent on infrastructure and services. As an example, the ACS contains many questions related to housing. These include the age of your home, its plumbing, its insurance costs, and the type of heating fuel used.  

The U.S. Chamber of Commerce, the National Retail Federation, and the Mortgage Bankers Association are just a few of the dozen organizations that have previously lobbied to protect the ACS, saying it's vital for developing business investment.

About 3.5 million households participate in the ACS, with the respondents picked at random and scattered around the country in a way designed to capture the full extent of the diversity. The response rate is 97 percent, so only three of every 100 people contacted refuse to cooperate. Info from the survey gets broken down to a neighborhood-like level.

As a researcher, I and therefore, my clients, have been a beneficiary of the statistics gathered in each Census. I use industry reports quite often to help clients who want to learn about a market into which they may be entering. I have used census statistics to help clients determine where or whether to build schools, plan school bus routes, and prepare school superintendents for the future of their districts.

What to Expect

You probably have already received a letter in the mail. Those who decide not to respond will most likely receive a follow-up phone call from a Census employee. You may also have someone come to your home to interview you.

To increase convenience and save money, the ACS also is available to complete online. You still have the option of a paper questionnaire or phone interview.

In the past, the Census has called people on their cell phones. You may be surprised that the unanswered questionnaire mailed to you will ask about your investment income and utility bills (a Census question since 1940). you may also be disturbed by questions about the location of your children's school and the pattern of your commute to work (an avenue of Census inquiry that started in 1960).

Skipping a Census question

Refusing to answer any census question is against the law and could be costly. The census law (Title 13, United States Code, Section 224), coupled with the Sentencing Reform Act of 1984 (Title 18, Sections 3551, 3559, and 3571), provides for penalties of up to $5,000 for failure to report, and $10,000 for intentionally providing false information, the bureau separately says online, citing Section 3571 of Title 18.


Although the Census provides useful statistical information about a population, the availability of this information can sometimes lead to abuses, political or otherwise, by the linking of individuals' identities to anonymous census data. This is particularly important when individuals' census responses are made available at detailed levels. Still, even aggregate-level data can result in privacy breaches when dealing with small areas and rare subpopulations.

For instance, when reporting data from a large city, it might be appropriate to give the average income for minority females aged between 30 and 50. However, doing this for a town that only has two minority females in this age group would be a breach of privacy because either of those persons, knowing her income and the reported average, could determine the other woman's pay.

Persons concerned about the privacy of their answers should know that, under federal law, all employees and officials of the Census Bureau are prohibited from sharing a person's personal information with anyone else, including welfare agencies, the Immigration and Customs Enforcement, the Internal Revenue Service, courts, police, and the military. Violation of this law carries penalties of $5,000 in fines and up to five years in prison.

What To Do to Protect your Privacy

There isn't much you can do. This article from NPR reports that for the first time, personal information from federal and state records, such as tax returns and Medicaid applications, as well as public utility records will be used to fill in the blanks on 2020 census forms.

We can see from the recent news that our data is pretty likely to be breached at some point in the future. Considering all of the computers and databases which will be used to compile the census data and all the agencies with connecting networks using the information, it could be just a matter of time..

In a study conducted by two students at the Harvard John A. Paulson School of Engineering and Applied Sciences, who explored data leaks for their final project in Privacy and Technology, they showed that a cybercriminal doesn’t have to have a specific victim in mind. They can now search for victims who meet a certain set of criteria. The census information can help criminals find that data.

For example, in less than 10 seconds one of the students produced a dataset with more than 1,000 people who have a high net worth, are married, have children, and also have a username or password on a cheating website. Another query pulled up a list of senior-level politicians, revealing the credit scores, phone numbers, and addresses of three U.S. senators, three U.S. representatives, the mayor of Washington, D.C., and a Cabinet member.

Steps You Can Take

One thing you should not do is lie (it's a crime) and don't provide false answers. Remember if you pay property taxes or utility bills, your residence is not unknown to the government. Complete your form because not completing it is against the law as well although a lesser crime than lying. Drawing attention to yourself by breaking the law will not be helpful. A chart of response rates from shows that they do have a maximum contact attempt rate so they do keep trying to reach you.

Do use a Voice Over Internet ( VOIP) number such as Google Voice when asked for a phone number. Don't use your cell phone number.

In the article entitled “How to Protect Yourself After a Data Breach, it is suggested that we “Follow the news. It is not a bad idea to type “data breach” into Google News once a day to see who the latest company has been. Then if you shopped at that store or restaurant, or provided your information on the site, you know to be extra vigilant about your credit card activity.”