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Confidentiality Expires For 1940 Census Records 311

Posted by Unknown Lamer
from the send-more-hard-drives dept.
Hugh Pickens writes writes "In spring of 1940, the Census Bureau sent out more than 120,000 fact-gatherers, known as 'enumerators,' to survey the nation's 33 million homes and 7 million farms. Now as the 72 years of confidentiality expires, the National Archives website buckled under the load as the 1940 census records were released and 1.9 million users hit the archives servers in the first four hours the data went public and at one point, the Archives said, its computers were receiving 100,000 requests per second. Data miners will have the opportunity to pick and chip through more than 3.8 million digital images of census schedules, maps and other sociological minutiae. What will we learn from this mother lode? The pivotal year 1940 'marked the beginnings of a shift from a depressed peacetime to a prosperous wartime,' says David E. Kyvig, author of Daily Life in the United States, 1920-1939. The vast data dump, Kyvig says, will allow historians 'to look closely at particular communities and how people within them were doing in terms of employment, income and material comforts.' The 1940 census was the first Census that looked deeper into the details of much of American life. 'As we see how the country evolved over the subsequent 20 years, where we have aggregate census data ... we ought to be able to see more clearly how government spending bettered everyday life, confirmed Keynesian economic theory and revealed that, before the war, the New Deal did too little, rather than too much, to stimulate the U.S. economy."" Get all 18TB of it while it's hot.
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Confidentiality Expires For 1940 Census Records

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  • by starworks5 (139327) on Tuesday April 03, 2012 @05:19AM (#39557873) Homepage

    Just because the government was able to implement a Keynesian solution to that economic problem, does not mean that it holds the solution to every economic problem, for instance one that involves post - peak natural resource production.

    • by MSTCrow5429 (642744) on Tuesday April 03, 2012 @05:57AM (#39557981)
      /.is really trolling today. I've seen multiple stories on the 1940 census records release, and zero mentioned this discredited economic theory.
    • by ultranova (717540) on Tuesday April 03, 2012 @09:26AM (#39559055)

      Just because the government was able to implement a Keynesian solution to that economic problem, does not mean that it holds the solution to every economic problem, for instance one that involves post - peak natural resource production.

      However, governments have dealt with this particular problem - scarcity - before through rationing.

      Also, to put it bluntly, the choice is between the government or the same bunch of monsters who brought us this latest economic meltdown to line their own pockets; in other words, incompetence or malice. Competence is no good if it's working against common good; a blind chicken makes for a better ally than a hungry lion.

      Nobody really likes the government, but the alternative is even worse.

  • by Henriok (6762) on Tuesday April 03, 2012 @05:32AM (#39557911)
    OK it's somewhat sensitive information, but why was it confidential for so long?
    • by ClintJCL (264898) <clintjcl+slashdot&gmail,com> on Tuesday April 03, 2012 @05:55AM (#39557973) Homepage Journal
      Because it's somewhat sensitive information.
    • by petman (619526) on Tuesday April 03, 2012 @05:57AM (#39557977)
      I'm stabbing in the dark, but it might be to ensure that most of the people surveyed in the census is dead, so any privacy issue is minimised.
    • by uberdilligaff (988232) on Tuesday April 03, 2012 @07:06AM (#39558217)
      Because that was the law under which the sensitive information was collected. The average US life expectancy in 1935 was 61.7 years, so 72 years would mean that the privacy issues would be moot for most of the folks enumerated in the Census -- they weren't expected to be around to complain 72 years later. The laws that established the Census go way back -- I don't know when the 72 years criterion was established. Life expectancy was even shorter the farther back you go.
      • by vlm (69642) on Tuesday April 03, 2012 @07:39AM (#39558383)

        LOL human death back then, as now, was a bathtub distribution, like electronics parts. So most people died as little kids or elderly. Back then pretty much all preemies died as a general rule, for example, unlike now. All the "average" means is the ratio of how many died as a baby vs died as an old man. I'd guess that means about two kids died young for every 8 or so that died elderly, which seems to fit in with actual genealogical data I have on my ancestors...

        The "real story" (in quotes because even pages of and pages of this stuff is still merely a summary of the real sources) can be read at

        http://www.census.gov/history/www/reference/genealogy/the_72_year_rule.html [census.gov]

        The exact number 72 was selected because in 1952 they wanted to give away the 1880 census information. Essentially declassify it by transfer from the BC to the NA. I think you can see the math there, 1952 - 72 = 1880 The exact 72 year range has stuck since then.

        The legal BS behind the general range of "more than 70 years" was selected, as you'll read at the link above, because the census officers had to / have to take an oath to never release the data. Assuming someone lied on their application and got hired anyway at 10 (unlikely), and assuming that even in extenuating circumstances there are no govt employees of any sort over the age of 82 (unlikely), that means waiting 72 years means the oath takers successfully did their duty and while it was in their power, blah blah blah, they never released the data. Essentially its your usual govt corruption. Technically according to the rule of the law the folks who gathered your 2010 census data will Never permit the release of the 2010 census data .... Never ... of course they'll be dead or retired eventually at which point it'll be released anyway in 2082, assuming the country doesn't self destruct first, at which time the oath takers will all be dead or retired.

        Its legal bullshit because if you're convicted of a crime by a judge, just because a judge dies or retires doesn't mean you're a free man. Another example would be the priest who married me and my wife about a dozen years ago by the process of signing the marriage license recently died... that does not automagically make us single. Also from my military experience the death of a guy who classified a document doesn't automagically free that document.

        If someone invents an immortality treatment, we'll have to come up with some new legal technicality bullshit. But for now 72 years works and is the tradition.

      • by JasterBobaMereel (1102861) on Tuesday April 03, 2012 @08:16AM (#39558579)

        In the UK they release census data after 1000 years ... we have recently got the 1911 census (we have them every 10 years but started in 1841)

        Is this a reflection of expected lifespans in the US and UK ?

      • by wiredog (43288) on Tuesday April 03, 2012 @09:44AM (#39559247) Journal

        Actually, it's in the Constitution.

    • by Anonymous Coward on Tuesday April 03, 2012 @07:37AM (#39558379)

      Because if it had not been promised to remain confidential, people wouldn't have filled it truthfully.

    • by Rob the Bold (788862) on Tuesday April 03, 2012 @09:29AM (#39559079)

      OK it's somewhat sensitive information, but why was it confidential for so long?

      From TFNPRA:

      There is a reason that all of this up-close-and-personal information from 1940 is being released all these years later. "In 1952, the director of the Census Bureau and the National Archivist agreed that keeping census records private for 72 years balanced public release of federal records with the tradition of confidentiality," explains the Census Bureau's Glasier. In other words, 72 years was considered at the time to be longer than most lifespans.

  • by olddoc (152678) on Tuesday April 03, 2012 @06:00AM (#39557987)
    Why did you say "we ought to be able to see more clearly how government spending bettered everyday life" Why don't you say "we ought to be able to see more clearly how world war bettered everyday life" "Clearly in the 1990s and early 2000s there were too few wars rather than too many to stimulate the US economy" correlation !=causation Still I would rather have a 1940 size US government with a 1940 size budget and 1940 amount of federal regulations. (and a 2012 respect for civil rights)
    • by starworks5 (139327) on Tuesday April 03, 2012 @06:25AM (#39558077) Homepage

      I believe that government has a role to play in the economy, but not one that is in bed with the private sector, which is where most of the waste is derived from. However if your talking about it from a liberty perspective, there is essentially two forms of liberty (actually a plurality), the government and private sector both advocate differing varieties.

      http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Liberty#Freedom_as_a_triadic_relation

    • by SirGarlon (845873) on Tuesday April 03, 2012 @07:25AM (#39558305)

      Still I would rather have a 1940 size US government with a 1940 size budget and 1940 amount of federal regulations. (and a 2012 respect for civil rights)

      • Equal Pay Act of 1963
      • Civil Rights Act of 1964
      • Age Discrimination in Employment Act of 1967
      • Fair Housing Amendments Act of 1988
      • Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990

      All of the above and more [withylaw.com] are from the postwar period. I don't think you can have it both ways: 2012 respect for civil rights is only possible through 2012 regulation. One could say the same about clean water, food safety, highway safety, and other important issues.

      • by mjr167 (2477430) on Tuesday April 03, 2012 @07:36AM (#39558369)

        I'm not sure what not discriminating against people has to do with regulating the price of electricity. Also, how does groping people in the airport promote civil rights? Can you please enlighten us?

        You seem to implying that we would all be bigots if the government wasn't carefully watching over our shoulder to make sure we met our quotas.

        • by SirGarlon (845873) on Tuesday April 03, 2012 @08:06AM (#39558525)

          I'm not claiming that all regulation is good. The examples you cite (regulating price of electricity, the TSA) are clear examples of stupid, counterproductive regulation.

          My position is that without Federal law to suppress a host of discriminatory practices, the bigots would still be in charge. Without Federal law to prevent dioxin in the ground water, companies would still be dumping toxic waste. The quality of life we take for granted did not magically emerge as we all became enlightened. It required the big stick of government regulation to stop the elite from abusing the rest of the public.

      • One could say the same about clean water, food safety, highway safety, and other important issues.

        No, no one would not. Water: dirtier now than in 1940, full of chlorine and chloramines and yet STILL biologically unsafe. Highway safety: Ticket speeders, ignore left lane cloggers even in states where it's illegal. Food safety: They're actually arresting people and pouring bleach on food that people want to eat, while promoting processed foods which are inherently harmful with deliberate lies from the NIH.

    • by JerkBoB (7130) on Tuesday April 03, 2012 @09:37AM (#39559173)

      Still I would rather have a 1940 size US government with a 1940 size budget and 1940 amount of federal regulations.
      (and a 2012 respect for civil rights)

      In order for that to work out you're going to need a 1940-size population (and never let it grow -- maybe some more world wars) and a 1940-style population distribution. I've been thinking a lot lately about the implications a larger, more urban population has for the American experiment. In all the discourse I hear/read, I never come across anyone pointing out the simple fact that things are very different than they were when the founders did their thing. Hell, things are incredibly different from what they were just 2-3 generations ago, when this census was taken.

      1790 population:
      3.8M, 3% urban, 81% white (18% slaves!!)

      1940 population:
      131M, 56% urban, 88% white

      2010 population:
      308M, 81% urban, 75% white

      Look at those numbers. Taken from census.gov. Look at those numbers and tell me that they're not striking. In 72 years, the population has increased by nearly 2.5 times, it's become far more urban (i.e. more people cheek-by-jowl with far less community), and less homogenous.

      Some people will say those are good things, some say they're bad. I think that's silly. They're facts. They just are. But no one seems to want to explore those facts. What does it mean that so many of us now live in cities? There is interesting work (Dunbar Rule [wikipedia.org], Monkeysphere [cracked.com], etc.) which indicates that we're wired to perform best socially in smaller groups. Social mores hold stronger sway when anonymity is limited.

      I think the fact that people don't police themselves (why shouldn't I cut off this asshole, he doesn't know me, I won't see him again!) has led to the crazy layering of laws put in place by politicians who have to be seen to be "doing something" even if that something is passing new laws which overlap with laws already passed to "do something", leading to unintended consequences and a dysfunctional legal system which is now based almost entirely around plea bargaining [enotes.com] (90+ %!!) rather than trial by jury of one's peers, as the framers envisioned. Think about that. As most of us don't wind up in the criminal justice system, I think most of us still have this romanticized notion of how law works -- lawyers make their cases before a jury of our peers, the jury goes away and weighs evidence, then makes a decision, etc. etc. No, actually what happens is someone from the AD's office and your defense lawyer sit down and play the bargaining game. If your lawyer is good enough, they bargain down so you get the minimum time possible, it goes to a judge, and you go serve your sentence. No jury. No courtroom drama. If everyone demanded a trial by jury, the system would grind to a halt.

      What's the point of all this ranting? I don't know. Mostly I'm just venting to get this idea out there, to get people thinking and talking about the idea that the systems we have in place now (government, law, etc) may have gone well beyond their ability to scale to the size of our population. It's like any other scaling problem... Take the technology that is working now, keep throwing band-aids and duct tape at it until it completely crumbles under the load, and then throw it out in search of what works at the next level. Often times that changeout in technology isn't a clean progression -- some things have to work differently in order to deal with the increased load. Just because it's different doesn't mean that it's worse, though.

  • 18 Terabytes?! (Score:5, Interesting)

    by ndogg (158021) <the.rhorn@ g m a i l.com> on Tuesday April 03, 2012 @06:03AM (#39557997) Homepage Journal

    Someone gonna torrent that?

    • by Anonymous Coward on Tuesday April 03, 2012 @06:09AM (#39558013)

      I think you can get it from megaupload.com

    • by sohmc (595388) on Tuesday April 03, 2012 @08:03AM (#39558501) Journal

      I had this same question. My assumption is that should the gov't provide a torrent, the MPAA/RIAA/etc would get all up in arms that the administration is supporting copyright infringement. It's completely incorrect, but when has that ever stopped the MPAA/RIAA/etc from complaining?

      So instead of "sharing the load" between servers, they just put the data on a server and said, "Good luck. We're all counting on you."

      I'm sure some slashdotter somewhere has torrented it though. Too bad I'm at work and my company considers torrents "hacking."

    • by Orgasmatron (8103) on Tuesday April 03, 2012 @08:55AM (#39558845)

      It looks like the website linked is designed to avoid oversharing. There doesn't seem to be any way to export the data in bulk.

    • by Rob Riggs (6418) on Tuesday April 03, 2012 @09:32AM (#39559121) Homepage Journal
      It's 18TB of unsearchable images. Why didn't they just give it to Google to OCR and index for us all?
  • by repapetilto (1219852) on Tuesday April 03, 2012 @06:26AM (#39558083)

    Correct me if I'm wrong, but didn't Keynes suggest government deficit spending during depressions and recessions... then pay it off when times are good?

    I've never actually read his work so I don't know. This would make more sense than that an economist would recommend what is going on though.

  • by jdavidb (449077) on Tuesday April 03, 2012 @08:17AM (#39558583) Homepage Journal

    The pivotal year 1940 'marked the beginnings of a shift from a depressed peacetime to a prosperous wartime

    Baloney. Wartime might appear more prosperous in that a lot of people were suddenly "employed" by the government who were previous unemployed, but everyone still lived under rationing and scarcity. Real economic recovery didn't happen until 1946.

  • by GrahamCox (741991) on Tuesday April 03, 2012 @09:27AM (#39559067) Homepage
    It's really great that you can get such a relatively recent census, while people on it are still likely to be around. In the UK, the most recent one was 1911 (only made available after 100 years) which is slightly too long to be able to link it with living people. If you are doing genealogical research censuses are prime sources, but the 100 year rule makes it frustrating to bridge that last gap between the living and the dead.
  • by objekt (232270) on Tuesday April 03, 2012 @09:29AM (#39559085) Homepage

    Oh great, the server is way busy. Now I'll have to wait for all the geeks to finish. :/

  • Copyright vs Census (Score:4, Interesting)

    by Immerial (1093103) on Tuesday April 03, 2012 @09:51AM (#39559321) Homepage
    Anybody else find it interesting/sad that the time limit on copyrights is longer than the privacy time limit on the Census records? Just a clear indication that corporations are valued above people.
  • by operagost (62405) on Tuesday April 03, 2012 @09:52AM (#39559329) Homepage Journal
    Keynesian economics did too little? We didn't have enough people performing useless "work" for the CCC? We didn't strongarm enough small business with the NRA until it was mercifully killed by the Supreme Court? A 97% income tax rate wasn't high enough? Confiscating the gold of citizens, then selling it to foreigners at a profit wasn't enough? Maybe just removing the protectionist, job-killing Smoot-Hawley tariff that Hoover had imposed would have been enough, but that's wasn't tried. I'm sure that more spending on various programs would have worked. After all, as his own Treasury Secretary Morgenthau exclaimed, "We have tried spending money. We are spending more than we have ever spent before and it does not work. . . . After eight years of this administration we have just as much unemployment as when we started . . . and an enormous debt to boot!"

I'd rather just believe that it's done by little elves running around.

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