The Risks and Rewards of Conducting a Census in the Digital Age

Cite as: 4 GEO. L. TECH. REV. 415 (2020)

Every decade, the U.S. Census Bureau undertakes its constitutional mandate to count every person once, only once, and in the right place.1 The 2020 Census is the nation’s first “digital” decennial census; for the first time in its history, the Bureau has invited the majority of the public to participate using an online self-response portal.2 Along with the new Internet self-response option, the Bureau has pioneered and adopted cutting-edge methodologies and technologies that may help contain overall costs while providing significant gains in efficiency of the 2020 Census and the quality of the published statistics.3

While every decennial census is a vast and staggeringly complex undertaking, census taking in the digital age presents particular challenges and risks to achieving a fair and accurate count. These include the “digital divide” (i.e. the demographic gaps in access to and use of the Internet),4 cybersecurity risks,5 the potential for the use of commercial and third-party datasets to “de-anonymize” (or reconstruct and reidentify) census respondents,6 and the threat of disinformation campaigns reminiscent of those during the 2016 U.S. presidential elections.7 Some experts fear the Bureau did not do enough to mitigate and manage those risks in the lead up to the 2020 Census.8

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Cara Brumfield & Jae June Lee

Cara Brumfield, Senior Policy Analyst, Georgetown Center on Poverty & Inequality's Economic Security & Opportunity Initiative (GCPI ESOI), M.P.P. American University, B.A. Lafayette College.

Jae June Lee, Policy Analyst, GCPI ESOI, B.A. Kenyon College.