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Privacy has a price tag of $5,000

pOSTED 9/3/2013

Originally Published: September 22, 2010 
in The Tribune, San Luis Obispo, CA

By Bill Morem —

Tom Bolton is in a pickle, a dilemma that may leave his wages garnished by the government to the tune of $5,000. He’s staring down the barrel of such a fine because the Atascadero resident is refusing to give the U.S. Census Bureau about 28 pages of details of his private life.

I know, if your head snapped around like Linda Blair’s in full exorcism mode when you read that, you’re not alone; hearing his story almost makes me want to spit pea soup.

By his own admission, Bolton is a middle-class guy with a wife, two kids and a dog. As an average wage earner, a $5,000 hit to his household will stagger him; yet he’s willing to take the hit because he believes in the sanctity of his home and privacy.

Most of us have filled out our 2010 decennial census forms; it’s a constitutionally mandated chore that may rankle some as unwanted governmental intrusion into our lives. It generally takes just a few minutes to fill out.

Then there’s the more detailed 28-page form called the American Community Survey that’s sent out to random addresses. And that’s the one that has Bolton balking.

According to Jose Vidrio, the senior field representative who oversees surveys for Monterey, San Luis Obispo and Santa Barbara counties, an average of 14 to 15 American Community Surveys are returned to his office on a monthly basis from our county. Nationwide, the number is about 50,000 a month.

And, yes, unlike the every-10-years form most of us fill out, the American Community Survey goes on every month, year after year.

Bolton says that after he filled out his regular census, he was “selected” for the survey and “respectfully declined to fill it out.”

“Besides your name, address and telephone number,” he explains, “it asks such vital questions your ever-expanding government should know such as: What is the ethnicity of your children?

How many times have you been married? What is your house worth? How much is your house payment? Do you have trouble climbing stairs? Do you or anyone in your family have a mental illness? How many cars do you own? Where do you work? What time do you go to work? etc.

“Just for fun, I counted the questions I would have answered — 206!”

To what end is all of this data mined and applied — other than the government wanting to keep closer tabs on its citizens? According to Vidrio, it’s to help zero in on where to spend some $400 billion in our federal tax dollars with regard to community, state and federal programs. You know, the programs that are in the crosshairs of tea partiers.

If government mandatory compliance to such personal details sounds to you like something contrary to the Fourth Amendment’s “right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures,” well, you’d be wrong.

Title 13, U.S. Code, Sections 141, 193 and 221 — an amendment added in the 1990s to the constitutional mandate regarding census gathering — says that anyone over 18 years old who refuses or willfully neglects to complete the questionnaire or answer questions posed by census takers can be fined up to $5,000.

How diligent are Vidrio and his 10 agents who oversee the Central Coast in seeking compliance? According to Bolton, very diligent: “They have sent two threatening letters, three phone calls at my home, two calls at my place of work, and four separate visits by three different field representative agents, including the senior field representative (Vidrio), all of them threatening me with a $5,000 fine for refusing to ‘participate.’ ”

Vidrio says that there have been instances where reluctant participants in chichi neighborhoods such as Montecito have simply cut his team a $5,000 check at their door and told them to get the hell off their property.

In Bolton’s case, that wasn’t, and isn’t, an option.

“On my doorstep, as my neighbors looked on, I argued with (an agent) and asked him how they would make me pay the fine. He replied, ‘By garnishing your wages from your paycheck, of course, just like taxes.’ I took that as a threat.

“They do not have the right to inflict abuse, embarrassment or harassment on U.S. citizens,” Bolton adds. “My personal information and privacy are my property!”

Libertarian Ron Paul has railed against the survey. No surprise there. The Libertarian-leaning Cato Institute and Constitution-centered Rutherford Institute have also published concerns about the survey. Various newspapers and columnists have taken a bite out of it, believing it may be the slippery slope that leads to a national ID chip imbedded at birth. And then you have the foil- hatted mouth-foamers who smell survey-driven internment camps on the horizon. I couldn’t find anything from the ACLU.

Bolton says he contacted both that organization and a similar group, the American Center for Law and Justice and only heard back from the latter. Their answer? Sorry. The Census Bureau has the right by the above-noted government code to demand compliance.

Here’s something else that should be considered: In an age of computer hacking and identity theft, just how secure is all of this personally detailed information?

Consider, in 2007 the Census Bureau admitted that it had mistakenly posted personal information from more than 300 households on a public Internet site — multiple times over a period of five months. Also consider, that same year, the bureau admitting that it had lost almost 700 laptops since 2001, with 246 having personal information gathered by agents working in the field.

Vidrio says the bureau has implemented extreme security measures to defend against hackers, that stiff fines and/or prison time will be meted out to agents who knowingly release information, and that survey takers don’t have to supply the three elements used by identity thieves: Social Security number, exact date of birth and even the survey taker’s real name.

“You don’t have to sign your name, although it helps if we have to call and ask for the head of the household,” says Vidrio, “but we’ve had people sign as John Doe. They could sign as Mickey Mouse if they wanted.”

As they say in the fashion industry, that’s about the size of it: Tom Bolton is adamant that he won’t participate in the survey and will somehow find a way to pay the fine.

“What should I do? What would you do? ACLU, where are you?” he wonders.

Vidrio is hoping that people comply, if for no other reason than greater compliance gives a more accurate picture on how government can allocate our taxes for various health, safety and social programs.

My take? The Fourth Amendment was pretty specific as to how the government can treat us in our own homes. I didn’t read anywhere in that document where it says we’re safe in our homes from government demands as long as we pony up personal details or pay $5,000.


From Wikipedia: “…Under the Fourth Amendment, search and seizure (including arrest) should be limited in scope according to specific information supplied to the issuing court, usually by a law enforcement officer who has sworn by it. Fourth Amendment case law deals with three central questions: what government activities constitute “search” and “seizure”; what constitutes probable cause for these actions; and how violations of Fourth Amendment rights should be addressed. Early court decisions limited the amendment’s scope to a law enforcement officer’s physical intrusion onto private property, but with Katz v. United States (1967), the US Supreme Court held that its protections extended to the privacy of individuals as well as physical locations.


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