Digital Equity Laboratory & NY Counts 2020


The Decennial Census is critical to equity in the US. Population numbers establish our electoral power for federal congressional seats and for state and local representation, and for $700-800bn in federal funding for health care, housing, education and more. The coming census is the first in which most Americans will be counted over the internet.

There has been news coverage of how the Trump administration has stoked fears among immigrant populations by pushing to include a question about citizenship status, and whether census information might be shared with law enforcement. Currently, inclusion of the question is tied up in the courts, while preparation goes forward.

Meanwhile, the new digital census raises other concerns based on core issues of digital inequity. Requiring people to fill out census online means requiring that they have broadband access. However, ~30% of Americans do not have reliable broadband at home, especially in rural hard-to-count (HTC) areas, and in urban HTC areas where broadband adoption rates are consistently low. Nationally, only about 57% of black and Latino residents have internet access at home. And people over 65 or with only a high school diploma are more likely to lack home internet service.

Community-based organizations, libraries, and other anchor groups are opening their doors and their broadband connections to enable and support census response. While the Census Bureau has put in place safety measures to protect its own servers from cyberattacks, and the Bureau is bound by Title 13 of the US Country Code to keep all private data confidential, there are vulnerabilities beyond the Bureau’s internal systems. Meanwhile, we still don’t know whether data processing companies or even other government agency employees (such as DHS, which could be brought in due to the 2015 Cybersecurity Act) are sworn to uphold Title 13.

The Bureau’s plan to partner with local organizations or anyone who can offer a public internet access point for census participation means that we also need to think about digital safety and security on the user side, as well as for organizations and advocates performing outreach, especially to communities who are traditionally underfunded and unrepresented. For example, any data that is unencrypted at any point in its journey from the user back to the Census Bureau’s servers is vulnerable to attack, and local computer systems could also collect copies of personal data which would not be protected on the local device, despite any encryption on the Census Bureau’s side. And while canvassing and outreach apps are useful, they also create a data trail which could endanger targeted populations, and could invite phishing or other attacks.

Suggested scope

The Digital Equity Laboratory and NY Counts 2020, a campaign of the New York Immigration Coalition, is seeking a consultant or consultants to conduct a risk assessment to understand vulnerabilities among different groups, individuals, and organizations emerging from the Digital Census process.

The goal of the assessment is to generate, in consultation with the New York Counts 2020 Tech & Tools Committee, a set of standards, practices, and policies that may be adopted by developers, access point hosts, funders, and organizers to ensure that digital participation in the census is as low-risk as possible, especially for vulnerable populations and the organizations that work with them. The risk assessment should apply to individual census participants, vulnerable communities, and to organizations and institutions engaging with the process, and should focus more on socio-technical risks than on complex technical data systems.

We seek a consultant to:

  • Conduct an audit of census-related data that carry risk for participants, including census survey content data; metadata collected by devices and processes integrated into data collection; and sensitive organizational data;
  • Assess processes and tools that will interact with these data, including but not limited to third party service providers (data hosts and the like); encryption protocols; devices used to collect data; apps; organizational archives and data;
  • Identify those most at risk if these data were breached, shared, or collected by law enforcement, immigration authorities, or other public and private actors;
  • Propose harm-reduction and mitigation strategies, including but not limited to data collection, storage, replication, and destruction policies; standards for census access points including encryption, data storage and protection; best practices for use of WiFi or other access protocols; and suggested tests to ensure that any developer, access point, or service provider that adopts standards, practices, and policies is accountable to their commitments;
  • Considering that some risks for the Census overall include lack of accessibility (language, ability, and digital literacy), suggest standards for these factors as well.

The Digital Equity Laboratory and the NY Counts Tech & Tools Committee intend to share data policies, standards, and testing protocols with NY Counts members, other community organizations and networks working towards a fair and accurate Census, and with a range of public and private actors working on technology tools. We hope that the guidelines produced out of this assessment will contribute to increased trust and safe participation by contributing to a better understanding of the risks and challenges unique to this new digital process.

We seek a consultant who has a demonstrated commitment to and understanding of social movements.

Download the call as PDF.