Census to count online

After a successful pilot test this spring, the Census Bureau has decided it will allow up to 100 million citizens to file their census forms via the Internet during the next national head count.

Census said people who receive the standard census form, known as the short form, will have the option of filling it out online rather than mailing it in. About 100 million households will receive the short form, while the rest will receive a longer, more in-depth form.

Census is unsure just how many people will take advantage of filing online, but the system will be scaled to handle 100 million forms, said Theresa Leslie, program manager for field infrastructure at Census. A World Wide Web site, which already is online at www.2000.census.gov, will provide the public with assistance on how to file online and will include downloadable foreign language guides to completing the census.

Reversing a decision made several years ago not to allow Internet filing, Census has since decided that the Internet has its merits. "It is really an inexpensive way to provide another option for people to respond to the census if they choose to do it this way," Leslie said. Census also will have fewer paper forms to scan and process through its data capture systems. "It can go right into our data processing system at headquarters; it bypasses the image capture process," Leslie said. "This is one server to another."

Census determined during the spring pilot test that the online census forms were user-friendly, Leslie said. Another test in the fall will enable the bureau to perform a security check on the system and ensure that it can interface with the processing system and can handle the capacity.

David Coon, a survey statistician at Census, said the bureau wants to keep its security plans closely guarded for fear of giving away too much information to potential hackers. However, he did say that the bureau will rely on browser-based encryption and a user identification number found on each of the census short forms to authenticate users.

"A user that has the minimum level of encryption that we [specify] will be able to proceed in completing the questionnaire online," Coon said, adding that the system will be taken offline if the bureau notices any security breaches. Census also will team with a certificate authority to authenticate the Census Web site so that citizens know they are connected to the legitimate Census site and not another site designed to mimic it, he said.

Probably all agencies are in the process of looking at how they can use the Internet, including the Social Security Administration, said Tony Trenkle, director of electronic services staff at SSA. The Access Certificates for Electronic Services program, which will provide public-key infrastructure technology, will help spur some Internet efforts along, he said, but there are also "other opportunities to use [personal identification] numbers and passwords to provide certain applications."

When it comes to security, Census should focus on protecting its Web server, which is a prime hacker target, said Mike Zboray, vice president and research director of network security at Gartner Group. "The No. 1 scheme for ensuring the security of a Web site is to use a multilayer, in-depth [strategy] for security so they don't rely on a single technology."

Chuck Cowan, a director at PricewaterhouseCoopers and chair of the Research Industry Coalition of professional associations, said he thinks the response via the Internet will be sporadic. However, in 2010, "I would think everybody would be responding through the Internet," he said.

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