Czech census - intrusion into privacy?

12-02-2001

Officials will be visiting every household in the country this week to deliver forms for the upcoming census. The state wants to know the exact number of people, houses, even household appliances there are at the end of this month. A similar census is held every ten years, and has been held for some 250 years in this part of the world. But never has it met with so much controversy. Olga Szantova reports.

Arguments against the census range from the really heated ones about the state trying to pry information about the social status of citizens, so it can cut down on various benefits, to the threat of private companies getting hold of the information and misusing it to fight competition. Several famous personalities have stated publicly they would not answer all the questions, regardless of the law that makes filling in the form compulsory. A somewhat less militant, but still very critical analysis of the census has been published by the Czech Helsinki Committee. The Committee's lawyer, Dr. Petr Smolik, says they don't just object to the questions asked, but also to the way the information is to be collected. Some 46,000 census collectors have been appointed throughout the country and there is no way of making sure that they won't misuse the information they receive.

The only way to eliminate that risk, the Statistical Office points out, is not to give the filled in form to the commissioner in the first place. It's perfectly acceptable to mail it directly to the local authority, or to the Statistical Office and thus eliminate the chance of unauthorized persons obtaining the data. But the bone of contention is the identification, or birth number which every Czech citizen is given upon birth and by which he can be identified throughout his life. The Czech Helsinki committee consider the inclusion of that number on the form the biggest problem, too.
It can be argued that Czechs are over-reacting to the possible threats posed by the census. But after so many years of totalitarian rule, when nothing was private, when the state insisted on knowing everything, and on interfering in everything, this is probably natural.

12-02-2001