The United States Census Bureau turned over names and addresses of American citizens of Japanese descent to the Secret Service during World War II. Though the rest of this week’s identity loss stories pale in comparison, it illustrates vividly the most important point about protecting your privacy, and who is the biggest threat to your security.
Though it’s glossed over in history courses, or omitted entirely as it was in my own high school education, during World War II the U.S. ran its own internment camps. And though it didn’t kill anyone, as far as I know, it did uproot over 120,000 lives of loyal, patriotic Americans who were told that they had to sell everything they owned, give up their livelihoods and live in detention camps indefinitely. There was very little outrage, or even opposition, to the idea, though what was going on in Hitler’s Germany had yet to be revealed here.
The Census Bureau collects detailed personal information about almost everyone in the country at least once every ten years. It’s required by law to keep this information strictly confidential, not sharing it with other government agencies or anyone else, except as aggregate statistics. By today’s standards this is an extremely high level of privacy protection for your personal data.
But in 1942, that privacy protection vanished.
The Second War Powers Act of 1942 temporarily repealed that protection to assist in the roundup of Japanese-Americans for imprisonment in internment camps in California and six other states during the war. The Bureau previously has acknowledged that it provided neighborhood information on Japanese-Americans for that purpose, but it has maintained that it never provided “microdata,” meaning names and specific information about them, to other agencies.
A new study of U.S. Department of Commerce documents now shows that the Census Bureau complied with an August 4, 1943, request by Treasury Secretary Henry Morgenthau for the names and locations of all people of Japanese ancestry in the Washington, D.C., area, according to historian Margo Anderson of the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee and statistician William Seltzer of Fordham University in New York City. . . .
The newly revealed documents show that census officials released the information just seven days after it was requested. Given the red tape for which bureaucracies are famous, “it leads us to believe this was a well-established path,” Seltzer says, meaning such disclosure may have occurred repeatedly between March 1942, when legal protection of confidentiality was suspended, and the August 1943 request.
Anderson says that microdata would have been useful for what officials called the “mopping up” of potential Japanese-Americans who had eluded internment.
The researchers turned up references to five subsequent disclosure requests made by law enforcement or surveillance agencies, including the Federal Bureau of Investigation, none of which dealt with Japanese-Americans.
Lawmakers restored the confidentiality of census data in 1947. — Scientific American
How dare those supposedly patriotic Americans not turn themselves in to their designated concentration camps!
Had things gone slightly differently, or less perfect men been in charge, the fate of those 120,000 people may well have been vastly different. As it was, they were imprisoned for four years for the crime of being born. And why? They were considered “too dangerous” to go about their daily lives, for “reasons” which seemed reasonable at the time, but which we know were so much crap. Even J. Edgar Hoover opposed the internment on the simple grounds that there was no good reason for it.
But for most of us, that’s all ancient history. The relevant question is: Who’s next? What ethnic group, race, religion, political affiliation, credit score, driving habit, or other private affair is the government going to persecute next? Do you really think it can’t happen to you? You can keep deluding yourself if you wish, but when the government comes for you, because its data mining programs falsely flagged you, or because they’ve once again decided to round up everyone matching a certain characteristic, who’s going to speak up for you? Will they be able to do so when they also are behind the fence?
I had several stories ready to go of government agencies losing, misplacing, or intentionally publishing private personal information on ordinary Americans. Forget all that. The danger of government databases being compromised is minor compared to the danger posed by the databases’ very existence. The privacy protections that Michael Chertoff and threats like him promise you today can be gone tomorrow, with an act of Congress, an executive order, or just a new regulation. After all, they’re all just words on goddamned pieces of paper.
It’s true that if you bow down like a good little slave and do exactly what your government masters tell you to do, they’ll let you live, they’ll let you keep some of the money you make hiring yourself out, they won’t beat you too badly, and they won’t interfere too much with your cheap entertainment, so you won’t bother to think about more weighty affairs, like, say, liberty, self-determination and personal responsibility.
If you like the life of a well-entertained slave, then by all means say nothing as the government compiles database after database, and dossier after dossier. After all, nobody in government would ever use that stuff to hurt you — as long as you do exactly what they say and give them all of their money. May your chains rest lightly.
But if you think you should be master of your own life, then you should by all means oppose any government database which tries to contain all or even most of the population. Otherwise, you could be the next person to have four years stolen from you — or much worse.