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Study finds Census reported Japanese Americans to US security agencies


Breach of confidentiality confirmed after decades of official denials
The U.S. Census Bureau provided information to U.S. surveillance agencies during World War II to identify persons of Japanese ancestry, according to a new study by two scholars of census history, who say their research confirms the bureau’s actions, despite decades of official denials.

Margo Anderson, professor of history and urban studies at the University of Wisconsin–Milwaukee (UWM), and William Seltzer, a senior research scholar in the Department of Sociology and Anthropology at Fordham University, will present findings from their study, “Census Confidentiality under the Second War Powers Act (1942-1947)” today at the annual meeting of the Population Association of America in New York City.

Seltzer and Anderson say the Census Bureau complied with a 1943 request by the U.S. Treasury Department for a list of all persons of Japanese ancestry in the Washington, D.C., area as recorded in the 1940 census. This information, collected under a pledge of confidentiality, was handed over in only seven days, according to the researchers.

The bureau also disclosed information about other persons counted in the 1940 census to the Federal Bureau of Investigation, say Seltzer and Anderson, as well as information about businesses and other establishments to war planning agencies, such as the Office of Emergency Management.

Whether the Census Bureau provided individually identifiable information on Japanese Americans during World War II has been a highly contested matter for decades, say Seltzer and Anderson, and the controversy was reignited in 2004 when it was reported that the Census Bureau had provided zip-code level data from the 2000 census on persons of Arab American ancestry to the Department of Homeland Security.

Although the bureau broke no law, since the Second War Powers Act permitted such disclosures, ethical questions linger about these World War II disclosures and about the Census Bureau providing small-area geographical data pertaining to potentially vulnerable populations to other governmental agencies.

The case has important implications for the upcoming 2010 census because the Census Bureau depends on public trust to succeed in its mission. Seltzer and Anderson also call for the bureau to disavow its denials of the disclosures and to set the bureau’s historical record straight.

The paper also documents the vigorous and ultimately successful efforts made by the Census Bureau, in the post World War II period, to re-establish statistical confidentiality after the Second War Powers Act was repealed in 1947.

But, as the authors observe, “… this was not always an easy task as a number of investigative agencies had grown accustomed to the relatively easy access they had had to Census Bureau micro-data during the war years.”


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