The Society for History in the Federal Government presents:
The Annual Richard G. Hewlett Lecture and Dinner
CLYDE’s of GALLERY PLACE
707-7th St. NW, Washington, DC
JANUARY 22, 2014
The Historian and Our Crisis of Data Collection vs. Privacy Rights
Margo Anderson, Distinguished Professor of History and Urban Studies at the University of Wisconsin–Milwaukee, delivered this year’s Hewlett Lecture at Clyde’s Gallery Place on January 22, 2014. The lecture had been postponed due to last year’s government furlough. Attendees were fortunate to enjoy an exemplary presentation that focused on both the federal historian at work and on critical research into an important question in federal government history.
Dr. Anderson spoke on the timely topic of the U.S. government’s use of collected personal data in ways that violate our rights and constitutional protections—the “dark side” of data collection. However, she drew us back to origins, to the Census Bureau’s provision to military authorities of small area tabulations of data from the 1940 census on over 100,000 Japanese Americans during World War II. Anderson and co-researcher Bill Seltzer worked with 18 record groups at the National Archives, materials at presidential libraries, and numerous archives. They found archival evidence that with Congress’s override of the “statistical confidentiality” provisions of the census statute in the Second War Powers Act of March 1942, the Census Bureau also provided lists of Japanese Americans by name and address to the Secret Service in 1943 They uncovered Bureau files and documents transmitting the data to the Army as well as instructions on how the evacuations were to be conducted. In addition, their research indicates that the tabular work was begun before Pearl Harbor at the White House’s request—the data was ready days after Pearl Harbor. The Census Bureau possessed the era’s most advanced data collection capabilities, powers that the administration and the military appreciated and exploited in wartime. The episode offers valuable lessons and cautions for our own time.
Those World War II tabulations resemble today’s NSA controversy involving collection of a comprehensive database from which particular names could be investigated if desired. And after 9/11, many feared that a new wave of persecution might befall the nation’s Middle Eastern population. Anderson’s presentation provided dramatic historical background on the boundaries and evolving contexts for such constitutional crises in privacy issues—prompting an informative question-and-answer period—and it demonstrated the unique importance of the historian in probing those developments.
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