How the Census Works

Privacy and Security of Census Data

By law, the Census Bureau cannot share your answers with others, including welfare agencies, immigration, the Internal Revenue Service, courts, police and the military. Under the provisions of Title 13 of the U.S. Code, census workers who break this law face up to five years in prison and $250,000 in fines [source: U.S. Census Bureau]. The law works -- millions of questionnaires are processed without any breach of trust.

The law requires each batch of census forms to remain private for 72 years. This is to encourage honesty and accurate information. The rationale is that little negative impact could happen after 72 years, since most of the people listed would be gone. The process of microfilming and printing the census also takes a long time to accomplish by the sheer volume of documents. (This process usually takes another two years or so to complete and make ready for the public, according to bureau officials.) In 2012, the bureau released data from the 1940 census and posted it online through the National Archives.

The Great Recession of the late 2000s had a positive effect on finishing Census 2010. The bureau was able to tap into a large pool of unemployed but educated and experienced people to work on the census, which helped them finish the count faster than in previous years and save millions of taxpayer dollars [source: El Nasser and Copeland].