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Politics & Government

The 2020 census will take place mostly online. Experts says that raises cybersecurity concerns

2020 Census
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The 2020 census will happen mostly online. Experts are warning that could pose major cybersecurity risks.

When you think about the census, you might picture people knocking on doors and canvassing neighborhoods. But the 2020 census will look a little different. The U.S. Census Bureau is trying to move the count online where people would fill out a digital form with their information.

Anjana Susarla’s recent piece for The National Interest pretty much sums up her feelings about the move to an online census. It’s titled “Why a So-Called ‘Digital Census is a Really Awful Idea.” Susarla is an associate professor in the Accounting and Information Systems Department at Michigan State University.

Between digital debacles like the malfunctioning of a reporting app during the Iowa Caucus, high profile data breaches, and the “black market” of sensitive information online, Susarla said she has very little faith in the security of a digital census.

“It’s almost scary how easy it would be for someone to manipulate a digital census,” Susalara said.

Susarla worries that malware unknowingly installed on an individual’s cell phone or computer could interfere with census data collection. Inaccurate data could skew the census and throw off how money gets allocated to communities, which is one of the main functions of the count. 

One of the reasons the census is moving online is cost. Collecting paper forms is expensive. You have to print the census, mail them out, and hire people to canvas at households that don't respond. This year, the U.S. Census Bureau will instead send out invitations by mail asking most people to take the census online. Paper ballots will be sent to pre-identified communities that don’t have reliable access to the internet. People will also be able to complete the survey by phone if they wish.

Susarla said she wants the U.S. Census Bureau to be more transparent about what their contingency plans are if a hack does occur, and share what they are doing to address potential security concerns.

“It’s fair to say that the Census Bureau understands some of these issues, but as I said, there’s still enough gaps that remain.”

This article was written by Stateside production assistant Olive Scott. 

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