The U.S. Census Bureau has invested heavily in digital advertising and online surveys to conduct this year's decennial count, and with the shift in technology comes new demands to keep the data secure from hackers. (Photo courtesy of minutephysics/YouTube)

Editor’s note: This is the third in a series of student produced stories looking at the 2020 census.

The U.S. Government Accountability Office estimates the 2020 census will cost $15.6 billion. If this estimate proves to be correct, the census is on track to be the most expensive in U.S. history, beating the runner-up 2010 Census cost of over $12 billion.

And some steps being taken to help reduce cost — such as adding the option of filling out the census online — have introduced new risks.

The census cost has risen over the past few decades, even when adjusting for inflation and population size. The 1990 Census cost $49.20 per household to conduct (in 2019 dollars) while the current estimate for the 2020 Census is a per household cost of $121.30.

(The census is conducted on the scale of households, not individuals).

The 2020 Census Lifecycle Cost Estimate Executive Summary, issued by the Census Bureau in 2017, outlined eight reasons for the cost increase: constrained fiscal environment; rapidly changing use of technology; information explosion; declining response rates; distrust in government; increasingly diverse population: informal, complex living arrangements; and, a mobile population.

Another concern raised by the National Research Council in 1995, and still valid today, is a change from paying temporary census workers, who are called enumerators, by each assignment to paying hourly. The NRC pointed out that workers with little oversight can take advantage of hourly pay by intentionally working slowly and driving up costs.

The new census is using new helpful methods that may reduce some costs. For example, this will be the first census to allow every person to take it online. A trial census was conducted online in 2000, but that was only available to a limited population.

“Once you scale up [the online census], it is much more efficient,” said Joshua Green, a Bay Area media specialist with the U.S. Census. “It’s much cheaper because the more people take it online, the fewer enumerators you have to hire, you’ll have to send less paper, and you are saving on human resources.”

Moving the census online lowers costs by reducing the amount of paper census forms that need to be transcribed by hand, as well as making it easier and cheaper to give the census in minority languages. In contrast to the two languages being used in census paper forms and mailing, the online census will be conducted in 13 languages.

However, with digitalization comes the threat of hackers, which poses its own monetary costs to fix. During a test of online U.S. Census systems in 2018, Russian IP addresses were able to access portions of the system that were supposed to remain away from public eyes, according to a Reuters article which interviewed two directly involved security officials. One of the two officials also mentioned a separate incident, where a census site IP address experienced a domain name service (DNS) attack.

Although no known damage was caused by these attacks, it suggests the census could be at the receiving end of hacks. Online censuses have been hacked before in other parts of the world, to the detriment of taxpayers.

When Australia rolled out its first online census in 2016, a distributed denial of service (DDOS) attack disabled the census website for days, which resulted in a total increased cost of $21 million.

Another way malicious actors can hijack census statistics is using sophisticated algorithms to determine the information of specific people by extrapolating from published census statistics.

“Hackers are pretty sophisticated; it’s an arms race, you have to keep up,” said Green when referring to protecting the integrity of the online census.

The 2020 Census will be using a new, state-of-the-art technique called “differential privacy” to reduce the risks of this occurring.

“To do this, you randomize the data so no algorithm can trace the data back to anyone, and the data is still accurate,” said Green.

The 2020 Census will also be using satellite imagery to canvas. This is the process of compiling the addresses of Americans in order to conduct the census, which should help reduce costs by decreasing the need for personnel to canvas on the ground. Canvassing in the field will only be conducted when satellite imagery fails to accurately assess addresses, according to the Census Bureau.

Social media is also an increasingly important part of promoting the census at a lower cost. According to the Census Bureau, 29.1 percent of the 2020 Census’ media budget is for digital advertising.

For the 2020 Census, the Census Bureau said it is required by law to reuse data already held by other government organizations in conducting the census in order to reduce costs. This data is and will be confidential.

To watch a tutorial on how census data and privacy are protected, go to: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pT19VwBAqKA.

Nicholas Harvey is a sophomore and a reporter on the student paper, “The Californian.”

This story originally appeared as part of a special section in “CC Spin,” a county-wide student newspaper produced by students at participating Contra Costa County high schools.