One, two, three . . . 325,700,000. Every 10 years the U.S. government counts the people living in the United States. The nation’s 24th census will begin next year. But hacking, privacy, and citizenship issues are already casting doubts on the 2020 tally.
Censuses have occurred worldwide for centuries. The Babylonians took the first census in 3800 B.C. Both the Old and New Testaments of the Bible record censuses. Early Romans conducted one of the world’s best-known censuses at the time of Jesus’ birth. (Luke 2:2)
The first official U.S. census took place in 1790. The U.S. Constitution mandates taking one every 10 years. Census forms ask questions of people living in the country. A census collects information about age, gender, race, household size, and other basic data. Researchers analyze the collected information for statistics. They might track how many people live in an area and what its ethnic makeup is. Privacy laws make it illegal to match individual people with census data.
Censuses help lawmakers distribute seats in the U.S. House of Representatives. The results guide allocation of billions of dollars in federal money. On the local level, censuses help city planners make decisions about services such as roads, schools, and assistance for the elderly.
For the 2020 census, some lawmakers want to add a question: Is this person a citizen of the United States? But some officials fear such a question will encourage people—especially those in the country illegally—to lie on the form. They believe strict privacy laws encourage truthful answers.
Several groups are suing the government over the citizenship question. The Supreme Court plans to rule on the issue before the 2020 census begins.
And there’s another challenge. Census information might not be secure. Census statistics are supposed to be jumbled. This is so publicly released data cannot identify individuals or locations. Yet hackers working for the Census Bureau were able to match 2010 census takers with information from certain social media data.
So far, no one has unlawfully seized census information. But the Census Bureau is still introducing a new data-shielding method. The new system involves complex computer algorithms. They will inject “noise” (meaningless information) into the data. So-called “noisy data” increases privacy. But it also lowers accuracy for researchers.
Despite these problems, chief census scientist John Abowd calls the 2020 census “the safest and best protected ever.” And former Census Bureau chief Kenneth Prewitt believes leaked census information isn’t as big a deal as other data breaches. He’s “much more worried about the fact that my iPhone follows me around every day.”