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U.S. Census OKs Web filing test

by Colleen O'Hara

Federal Computer Week

(IDG) -- Despite early security concerns, the Census Bureau last week confirmed that it will allow people to file census forms over the Internet during the next national head count, following a successful pilot this spring.

Census said it plans to offer citizens who receive the standard census form the option of responding via the Internet. One out of every six households will receive a more in-depth census form.

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"[The Internet] provides another option for people to be counted in the census," said Theresa Leslie, program manager for field infrastructure in Census' Decennial Management Division. "We're using it as another method for people who want to" take advantage of it.

The previous Census director last year abandoned plans to accept census forms over the Internet because of people's perception that the Internet is not secure. But Leslie said the bureau is confident that the security plan drafted for the program will quell any concerns.

Legislation such as the Paperwork Elimination Act, which mandates that agencies provide electronic forms and use digital signatures, also motivated the bureau. "We got a directive from the Department of Commerce, which wants to become more electronic," Leslie said.

To file over the Internet, users will need 128-bit encryption software as well as a legitimate identification number located on the census form itself to authenticate the user.

The bureau will test this spring the compatibility of World Wide Web browsers with software that supports 128-bit encryption, Leslie said. The Web server accepting the census data will be kept separate from other servers. The data collected via the Internet will be reformatted, merged and processed with other census data and will be protected under the same privacy laws.

The plan is getting a warm reception from key 2000 census stakeholders. "I think in terms of getting people to respond, especially with the new race question on the census form, it's excellent," said Ramona Douglass, president of the Association of MultiEthnic Americans, which represents interracial families and multi-racial people. For the first time, citizens will be able to check more than one box on the census form to indicate race.

But the Internet may not help count people who do not traditionally respond to the census, said Stephen Dienstfrey, past president of the Association of Public Data Users and co-chairman of the APDU's policy committee. The 1990 census missed about 4 million people, mostly minorities. "The people that have Internet access are probably not the people for whom it's difficult to get a response," he said. "How do you motivate people that have not traditionally responded? I don't think this solves that problem."

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