IRS Sharing Personal Income Tax Information with the Census Bureau

There are many compelling reasons to engage in genealogical and family history research, whether for personal curiosity or for establishing one's legal status and rights.  One useful resource in such research is the United States Census.  The decennial enumerations of each household are embargoed for 72 years, and their release to the public is invariably greeted with avid popularity.

Interesting census information from the past has included place of birth, occupation, naturalization status and date for immigrants, and native language.  But now, the census is about to get a little more interesting.

In order to design more efficient procedures for the upcoming 2020 census, the Department of Commerce wants to mine some data from our Form 1040 Income Tax returns and related documents.  Specifically, the Census people over in the Commerce Department desire, among other things, names and Taxpayer Identification Numbers of mortgage interest payers and payees.

The Internal Revenue Service has accordingly proposed a regulation to facilitate the request from Commerce; meanwhile, it is operating under a verbatim temporary regulation to accommodate the Census Bureau's request.

Quite frankly, there are some sound arguments for using such information to "design a decennial census that costs less per housing unit and still maintains high quality results."  But such activity does not occur in a vacuum.  IRS personnel have recklessly if not intentionally misappropriated what should be confidential personal information that was entrusted to the agency by the public, misusing the information not only to further a political agenda, but also, on more than one occasion, for larcenous personal gain.

The IRS and the Bureau of the Census perform differing functions, and have differing objectives and differing internal social norms and cultures.  In fulfilling what should be its mission, the IRS uses the data in its possession to collect and administer the revenue.  In 1900, the U.S. Supreme Court explicitly recognized that maintaining confidentiality of such information is inextricably essential to that end.

The Census Bureau's most basic objective is to facilitate the proper allocation and division of congressional electoral districts, but many other uses of such demographic data are also within its purview.  And while the Census Bureau does impose confidentiality rules upon its workforce, there is an expectation that the personal information in the Census will eventually be made public, albeit more than seven decades down the road.  No matter how good the intent of the particular employees of either agency may be, the Census people cannot help but view the personal data from a different perspective from how the Taxation people view it.  The probability of a lapse in sound data stewardship can only increase.

Far be it from me to cast any personal aspersions upon the diligent employees of the Census Bureau.  Nevertheless, there certainly is a legitimate concern when one federal agency with a questionable record for safeguarding the confidences reposed in it now deigns to let loose beyond its walls the American public's personal data by sharing it with another agency.

How many opportunities for hackers will be created by the data-sharing process?  And what if the Census Bureau follows the lead of the IRS and other federal agencies by allowing itself to be perverted and co-opted into furthering some nefarious anti-freedom political agenda?

Kenneth H. Ryesky is a lawyer who teaches business law and taxation at Queens College CUNY.  He formerly served as an attorney for the IRS.