You’d think the institution that invented the CIA would have figured out by now how to keep tabs on people.
Yet every 10 years, our government ignores its best surveillance technology and employs the most primitive means possible in hopes of producing a reasonably accurate accounting of its citizens and their lifestyles for the United States Census.
Instead of spy satellites and radio microphones, we rely on armies of housewives and homeless guys armed with pens, paper and temporary government salaries.
In an age when a hidden camera can zip images around the globe in the blink of an eye, census workers are actually trying to count every last person in the country by walking door to door.
This charming process inspires memories of the very first census, which involved people raising their hands high enough to be seen by some guy standing on a chair. But it doesn’t produce the level of accuracy to which we’ve grown accustomed in this information age.
I’m sure there are plenty of good reasons why the government doesn’t call on its surveillance force to produce an accurate census. For one, most of those spy agencies are busy digging up dirt on the president’s political enemies.
But that doesn’t mean we can’t find a better way to run the census. If the government saw fit to embrace the information-gathering tools of the Internet, the census could provide a picture more accurate than HDTV.
Ads and Web sites
The U.S. Census Bureau begins its process by mailing questionnaires to every house in the United States. If everyone filled these out and returned them right away, running a nationwide survey wouldn’t be any more difficult than lining up permission slips for a fourth-grade field trip.
Alas, many people don’t bother to fill out the forms, forcing census workers to try to track down as many of them as they can. As you might guess, they never quite catch up with everyone.
This means the final numbers, which are used to determine everything from congressional districts to federal subsidies, are just plain wrong.
This year, the government is employing clever ad campaigns and community outreach efforts in hopes of encouraging participation. And yes, they’ve even posted a Web site (www.2000.census.gov) where people can fill out the forms online.
But few Net surfers have seen the site. In the first two weeks after it was posted, fewer than 16,000 people had used it, according to a report from Wired News. At that rate, they won’t have everyone counted until forms for the 2010 census are in the mail.
If the Census Bureau really wanted to put the Net to work, it would tear down its site and turn to the people who can tell us the most about the private lives of United States citizens: online marketers.
Internet advertisers already know more about most Web surfers than the feds could ever hope to learn without a warrant. By combining the information collected online with databases built on magazine subscriptions, credit card bills and product registration cards, these marketers will soon be able to tell you anything you want to know about anyone with a modem.
For now, that’s still a relatively select group. By the time the 2010 census rolls around, though, these marketers will have a pretty good handle on a broad cross section of American citizens.
And by 2020, when interactive digital networks are as ubiquitous as telephones are today, advertising agencies will be performing the equivalent of a new census every day of the year.
Of course, most of today’s Net users aren’t exactly thrilled with all this high-tech spying. Online activists and public interest lobbyists are asking members of Congress to rein in online advertisers in the name of personal privacy, and there’s an outside chance they’ll agree.
But if Congress maintains its current insistence that the online industry should regulate itself a position made easier by the industry’s campaign contributions it could at least make sure the federal government has a right to peek at the data once every 10 years.
The resulting census figures still wouldn’t account for every man, woman and child, but they’d deliver a wealth of fascinating details at a fraction of the estimated $6.9 billion cost of this year’s count.
I don’t really expect anyone to take this idea seriously. This year and well into the future, the U.S. Census Bureau will surely continue counting people the old-fashioned way: hand by hand by hand.
And when they’re finally done, online marketers will still know more about us than our own government.
To contact Joe Salkowski, e-mail him at email@example.com or write to him c/o Tribune Media Services Inc., 435 N. Michigan Ave., Suite 1400, Chicago, Ill., 60611.