Reliance on Internet Places 2020 Census at Risk of Fraud

Wednesday, December 16, 2015
(photo: Yagi Studio/Getty Images)

A panel of experts advising the U.S. Census Bureau has warned that the 2020 Census, which will collect data primarily through the Internet, could be compromised by fraud.


A report (pdf) prepared by Mitre Corp. for the Census Bureau’s JASON scientific advisory panel said gathering census information electronically could leave the process at risk to fraud by hackers, pranksters and phishers. Particular concern should be paid to “large-scale, organized fraud,” according to the report, which “could pose a threat to the integrity of the census.” It also warned “the threshold for effectively manipulating the census process is surprisingly low.”


Census officials will use the Internet in the 2020 count in order to better reach “previously undercounted populations to improve accuracy,” according to Government Executive.


The Census Bureau plans to mail postcards to households containing an Internet link as text URL and scannable QR code. The postcard will include a unique identification that links the postal address to records maintained by the bureau.


Still, there are cybersecurity concerns raised by the JASON team. Their report said problems could surface because of “the Internet’s lower barrier of entry to the submission of fraudulent or mischievous forms, and the existence of a ‘hacker mentality’ that affects all things Internet. This suggests that some level of additional validation of non-ID forms is prudent, even if it goes beyond what was done in 2010.”


One thing the bureau isn’t concerned with is low-level mischief, such as someone declaring he’s “Seymour Butts of 6 E. Psycho Path,” according to the report. “This

type of fraud is generally easy to detect and historically of small enough scale to not significantly impact census outcomes.”


The report’s authors emphasized the importance of getting the count right. “Occasionally, small numbers of census responses determine the loss or gain of seats in the U.S. House of Representatives,” according to the study. “For example, in the 2000 U.S. Census, Utah fell only 80 persons short of gaining a congressional seat, which was instead allocated to North Carolina.”

-Noel Brinkerhoff, Steve Straehley


To Learn More:

2020 Census Called Vulnerable to Online Fraud (by Charles S. Clark, Government Executive)

Protecting the 2020 Census from Fraud (by Steven Aftergood, Federation of American Scientists)

Respondent Validation for Non-ID Processing in the 2020 Decennial Census (JASON, Mitre Corp.) (pdf)

Justice Dept. Agrees to Release Secret Memo Relating to Patriot Act and Census Info (by Noel Brinkerhoff, AllGov)

Census Bureau Plans to Drop Marriage and Divorce Questions (by Noel Brinkerhoff, AllGov)


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