Last week former Congressman Bob Barr made a rather provocative claim about the ability of Census workers to violate your privacy:
What many Americans don’t realize, is that census workers — from the head of the Bureau and the Secretary of Commerce (its parent agency) down to the lowliest and newest Census employee — are empowered under federal law to actually demand access to any apartment or any other type of home or room that is rented out, in order to count persons in the abode and for “the collection of statistics.” If the landlord of such apartment or other leased premises refuses to grant the government worker access to your living quarters, whether you are present or not, the landlord can be fined $500.00.
That’s right — not only can citizens be fined if they fail to answer the increasingly intrusive questions asked of them by the federal government under the guise of simply counting the number of people in the country; but a landlord must give them access to your apartment whether you’re there or not, in order to gather whatever “statistics” the law permits.
Barr’s conclusion is apparently based on his reading of this law:
Whoever, being the owner, proprietor, manager, superintendent, or agent of any hotel, apartment house, boarding or lodging house, tenement, or other building, refuses or willfully neglects, when requested by the Secretary or by any other officer or employee of the Department of Commerce or bureau or agency thereof, acting under the instructions of the Secretary, to furnish the names of the occupants of such premises, or to give free ingress thereto and egress therefrom to any duly accredited representative of such Department or bureau or agency thereof, so as to permit the collection of statistics with respect to any census provided for in subchapters I and II of chapter 5 of this title, or any survey authorized by subchapter IV or V of such chapter insofar as such survey relates to any of the subjects for which censuses are provided by such subchapters I and II, including, when relevant to the census or survey being taken or made, the proper and correct enumeration of all persons having their usual place of abode in such premises, shall be fined not more than $500.
When I first read the statute it seemed to me that all this really said was that apartment building owners were required to provide census workers with a list of tenants, and to allow them access to the common areas of the building to conduct their business. John Stossel, no friend of the government himself, agrees:
four privacy law experts we called to said that “ingress thereto” refers to the apartment complex, not individual apartments. Privacy lawyer Charlene Brownlee:
The answer to whether a census worker can enter an individual’s apartment in their absence is a clear NO… The use of the phrase “to give free ingress thereto and egress therefrom” means the owner/manager etc. of the APARTMENT HOUSE [building] must grant the census worker the right (without charge) to enter and leave the building. It does not require a landlord to allow a census worker to enter the apartment itself.
U Minn. law professor Bill McGeveran also pointed out that the Census has said they will not enter apartments or homes even if the law were interpreted as giving census workers the right to do so.
The Census website reads:
We specifically instruct census takers never to ask to enter a resident’s home. We certainly would not allow them to try to enter a home if the residents are not even present.
So, you know, eternal vigilance and all that, but this is clearly not something you need to worry about.