Census Privacy – Implied VS Informed Consent

There is a interesting article in the Globe today by Eric Sager a professor of history at the University of Victoria about access to the names of Census respondents of Censuses gone by and those in the future.

I consider the privacy aspects of the Census to be sacred and so does StatCan. I fill it out because I know I am anonymous and that the data will be aggregated therefore not traced back to my personal address. Many people feel the same way, recall the Lockheed Martin online Census debacle. Fortunately for Canadians we do not live in Nazi Germany, Stalin’s Ukraine, or are in Idi Amin’s Uganda where Censuses were explicitly used to target, kill or expulse ‘undersireable’ populations or to mask the death tole of massive mistakes. Censuses can and have been used to trace and target people of ethnic, religious, sexual orientation, or racial backgrounds. This 2006 Census year included a question as to whether or not we would be willing to give consent to sharing our private information 92 years from now. I responded with an educated no.

Historians and genealogists argue that past census respondent’s names should be made available and that we should have future access to current censuses:

The census is the only complete inventory of our population, an indispensable historical record of the Canadian people. It’s critical to genealogy, our most popular form of history. Of all visitors to our national archives today, half are doing genealogical research. If you had ancestors in Canada in 1901 or 1911, you can find them in the censuses of those years, online from Library and Archives Canada. Your children will also be able to find their grandparents and great-grandparents in the censuses of the past century — but only after a legally mandated delay of 92 years.

Seems like our friends in the South are sharing their Census information, as the U. S. Census information is released

through their National Archives after a delay of 72 years. They apply the principle of “implied consent” — a principle well known to privacy experts. When completing their census forms, Americans are consenting to the present-day use of their information by the Census Bureau, and to its use by other researchers in the distant future. Americans do not complain about the future use of their information, and there is no evidence that public release after 72 years has made them reluctant to participate.

Spammers and telemarketers have been using “implied consent” when they send me unsolicited email garbage, drop popups on my computer or call my home to sell me stuff. I have to say there are dubious elements to this concept. I do however like the concept of informed consent and think the Census had it right by leaving it up to census respondents to decide if they wish to share their personal information to future generations of researchers or potentially less progressive political regimes (see the question and your options).  StatCan even provided a very extensive section on historical and genealogical position. See the informed consent Question 8 on the short form and Question 53 on the long form. These are perfectly legitimate questions supported with a ton of explanatory texte and is a perfect compromise to the debate.

Prof. Sager makes a compelling argument for access to this private information, but he believes we should give up our right to informed consent, that we are not smart enough to understand on our own the importance of historical and genealogical research.  I vehemently disagree with these points. He does however correctly point out the importance of the Census for research and decision making.

I would like to have free – as in no cost – access to the non-private Census data and maps in the same way we have free access to the forms and the methodological guides. Now that, along with informed consent, is what a democracy looks like!

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