Census Online

A woman uses a computer at the library in downtown Roanoke, Va.

The 2020 census is a new frontier. Counts of people will collide with computers for the first time.

Next March, most households will receive a letter with a groundbreaking request. Don’t wait for canvassers or a paper questionnaire. Fill out your form online.

In theory, digital access should improve participation, especially among younger generations and their aversion to mail. Online technologies also address the census’ swelling production costs, from $523 million in 1960 to potentially more than $15 billion in 2020.

But the Census Bureau must proceed with caution. Are cybersecurity issues under control?

The bureau hopes 3 in 5 survey respondents will fulfill their 2020 civic duty online. Other changes include more automatic data collection methods and verifying addresses with aerial technology.

These innovations “introduce new risks, in part because they have not been tested extensively, if at all, in earlier enumerations,” warned Robert Goldenkoff, director of strategic issues for the U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO) at a Wednesday House Oversight Subcommittee on Civil Rights and Civil Liberties hearing.

The internet is risky business. A 2018 report by the Identity Theft Resource Center estimated 1,200-plus breaches and around 446 million personal records compromised last year. On Monday, Equifax announced a $700 million settlement over its massive 2017 data breach, with two options for consumers — 10 years of free credit monitoring or up to $125 in cash.

A breach of our census can’t be settled as easily. Data about our households and economy extend to essential federal programs and political representation. There is no free democracy monitoring and a fresh GAO census report is a cause for concern.

At the end of May, there were still more than 330 “corrective actions” tied to security for 2020, including 217 classified as “high-risk” or “very high-risk.” Of those 217 issues, 104 were delayed — 74 by 60 or more days.

While progress has been made, the clock is ticking. Saving money on our census can’t come at the expense of information integrity.

Chris Gentilviso

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