Can we count on tech to protect the online 2020 Census?
Jan 20, 2020

Can we count on tech to protect the online 2020 Census?

Social platforms pledge that misinformation disguised as news isn't allowed. But monitoring can be a challenge.

This year’s census is going digital — the first one in history available to be fill out online, instead of on paper. That’s fitting in a world that’s much more connected, compared to 10 years ago. But moving the Census online introduces some risks, too. 

Disinformation is a big one — mainly fake news designed to influence peoples’ thinking, and feelings. Disinformation campaigns led to intense criticism of social media platforms after the 2016 elections. The Census Bureau is warning that false information could affect the number of people who take part in the upcoming Census.

That has huge implications for everything from government funding to seats in congress, said Liz Woolery, from the Center for Democracy & Technology, whom I spoke with about this. The following is an edited transcript of our conversation.

Lis Woolery: [Filling out the census] is very, very important. Communities of color, and immigrants, are feeling deeply threatened by the Trump administration. Those communities are also more likely to be the subject, or targets rather, of disinformation. They also may be more likely to believe inaccurate information about the census.

Jack Stewart: Of course, the social media platforms have been implicated in the spread of misinformation, particularly around things like elections. What are they doing around the census?

Woolery: All of the major platforms have made some announcement. Facebook, for example, announced a new policy back in December 2019, that their platform will ban posts from misrepresenting when the census occurs — how it happens, who can participate. That policy will apply to both content that users post, as well as advertising. The big question for me is how do they enforce that policy at a scale of two billion users?

Stewart: These things are always just as good as the moderation system behind them, aren’t they?

Woolery: Exactly. For me, this is not a question of disinformation, it is a question of content moderation. As with hate speech, or nudity, or other types of content, disinformation is just another type of content that these platforms need to be able to identify and respond to.

Stewart: This is an election year. Could any of this be a dry run to see if these controls on misinformation could be applied to election campaigns?

Woolery: Absolutely. The census is really going to give many platforms an opportunity to see how resilient their systems are, how effective they are to maybe on a smaller scale, see how their approaches to disinformation fare. Similarly, like the election, this census has actually become fairly politicized, following the Trump administration’s attempt to add a question about citizenship. You layer on top of that the certain history of the U.S. Census Bureau that during World War II, when there was a question about citizenship on the census, the Census Bureau gave the Secret Service names and addresses of Japanese Americans, many of whom ended up in internment camps. So, layering on an election year with a politicized census certainly means that the stakes are much higher.

Steven Dillingham, director of the Census Bureau, said that by April 1, the census questionnaires should have been delivered to every household in the U.S. and its territories. (Mark Wilson/Getty Images)

Related links: More insight from Jack Stewart

Reuters has a special report on the process of outsourcing the digitization effort for the census, and what it says are reliability and security concerns.

Going digital could make the 2020 census more inclusive and efficient, according to a WIRED piece, but experts fear it’s also opening itself to new risks. It explains that the process of counting everyone in the U.S. hasn’t changed much in 230 years, despite a massive growth in population, and the growth of tech in every other part of our lives — until now. From satellite images to help map address lists — instead of canvassers doing it on foot — to apps for data collection, the article explains the risks and what the Census Bureau says it’s doing about them.

The Bureau is proud of the tech it uses. On its own website it details the history of automation, from punch cards to UNIVAC 1 — the first modern computer installed by a civilian government agency — to CD-ROMs, which seemed so modern and efficient just a few years ago — a reminder that tech never stands still, and whatever efforts are made to protect today’s systems will have to be updated for whatever comes next.

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