Protecting the 2020 Census from Fraud

12.10.15 | 2 min read | Text by Steven Aftergood

The national census in 2020 will be the first to rely primarily on the Internet for collecting census data, thereby creating new avenues for fraud and disruption.

A new report from the JASON scientific advisory panel describes the problem and outlines some solutions.

Why would anyone want to interfere with the constitutionally-mandated census, which maps the population of the United States every ten years and serves as the basis for apportioning congressional districts? The JASONs identified a number of reasons.

“Several distinguishable types of fraud against the census must be considered, including: hacking the census for fun or bragging rights; social media attempts to discredit the census and reduce cooperation; mimicry of the census forms or apps for purposes including phishing; city or district-level attempts to changes population numbers or distributions; large scale attempts to affect apportionment of the House of Representatives; individual mischief and anti-government protest.”

Not all of these threats are equally important.

“Non-organized fraud from random individuals (e.g. pet names listed as family members) is unlikely have any significant impact on the outcomes of the U.S. Census,” the JASONs said. And “individual mischief, for example, a response from Seymour Butts of 6 E. Psycho Path” is to be expected.

But large-scale, organized fraud could pose a threat to the integrity of the census, and the threshold for effectively manipulating the census process is surprisingly low.

“Occasionally, small numbers of census responses determine the loss or gain of seats in the U.S. House of Representatives. 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.”

The JASON report, prepared for the U.S. Census Bureau, included several technical and procedural recommendations to impede fraudulent activity, to facilitate its detection, and to mitigate its consequences.

“The goal of the 2020 Decennial Census is… to count every person, exactly once, onApril 1, 2020, by the geographical location within the U.S. where they ‘live and sleep most of the time’ (or a similar formulation). The total number of people thus counted is expected to be about 335 million.”

A copy of the JASON report was obtained by Secrecy News. See Respondent Validation for Non-ID Processing in the 2020 Decennial Census, November 2015.