Estonians question the census

  • 2000-04-06
  • By Jaclyn M. Sindrich
TALLINN – "Be there because you are important" proclaims the banner on the advertisement for Estonia's first population and housing census since the country regained its independence.

Between March 31 and April 9, the 6,652 census tellers will make sure that people fulfill their census duties according to the Population and Housing Census Act, regardless of an ad's encouragement.

The census talkers will travel mainly on foot, knocking on doors to gather information from as many households as possible. There are 43 questions on the census, with 12 concerning housing and 31 seeking personal data.

Residents of Estonia for longer than one year must answer the census in its entirety, except for questions regarding religious affiliation, second languages spoken and name of workplace.

Still, disclosing personal information such as one's work address, orientation of the job, hours worked, ethnic background and personal identification code is required. And some, out of a desire for privacy or fear of inadequate security measures, question whether the government really needs all of the information it demands.

"My opinion is that they are asking too much. I do not trust these people," said international lawyer Erkki Vaiksaar. "I don't know who is going to see this information."

When the census representative asked for information about his work, he declined to answer. He said he isn't alone in his view that the census is intrusive. "I think [most people] are thinking the same as me."

But refusal to fill out the questionnaires isn't cheap: The unwilling may be slapped with a fine equal to 80 days' pay.

Urmas Krull, Citizen and Migration Department spokesman, said he objected to one question on the census that asks, "Where were you during the eve of March 31 this year?"

"I think it's my own business where I was at that moment," he said. Krull also said having to disclose one's work address, even without having to name the company, isn't going to keep one's workplace a private matter.

"Estonia is so small that if I say I work at Endla 13, for example, 30 percent of the people processing data might know where I work. At present, that isn't a problem, but if I were working for the Security Police Board it might be," he explained.

Security Police Board spokesman Hannes Kont agreed that any time personal information moves out of one's own control, it is at risk to be used for another purpose, including against that person.

"That is obvious," he said. "But that it may be a problem is theoretical."

Still, so far, members of the census board claim to have seen few problems in gathering the necessary information.

"We haven't met a person today who didn't want to give the information," head of the census representatives Kersti Starkov said of the first several days of the census.

Mati Sundja, the head of the Population Census Division, argued that the information is completely confidential with the Statistical Office of Estonia. He assured the process is highly secure, though he declined to mention specific precautions taken in training the census talkers and processing the data.

The census, first and foremost, is to collect data in relation to the size, structure and distribution of the state, said Sundja, and it is used only for statistical purposes.

"It is important on all levels of legislation, social and economic spheres and [useful] for local authorities . . . and to check for migration," he said.

The questions were planned according to recommendations by the United Nations, UN Economic Commission for Europe and the Statistical Office of European Communities. Most European Union countries will carry out their censuses next year. Latvia and the United States are conducting theirs now as well.

The costs of Estonia's census, including preparations and processing of the information, run to 160 million kroons ($10 million). The last official census was conducted in 1989.