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Is the census ready for its online debut?

Census Bureau says it’s prepared for security threats, but watchdogs raise doubts

The prospect of an external attack has driven the Census Bureau to lean on the Department of Homeland Security. Above, workers attend a training session in Houston in February 2016. (Scott Dalton/Houston Census Office)
The prospect of an external attack has driven the Census Bureau to lean on the Department of Homeland Security. Above, workers attend a training session in Houston in February 2016. (Scott Dalton/Houston Census Office)

Next year the federal government will launch its largest public-facing online portal in years, for an undertaking facing risks ranging from foreign cyberattacks to collapsing under its own weight: the 2020 census.

For the first time, the census will rely on online responses, one of a slew of technological upgrades by the Census Bureau that also includes computerized address verification. Those changes have watchdogs worried, despite assurances by the bureau that it will be ready when the census is rolled out in Alaska starting in January. 

Though much of the political controversy surrounding the census has focused on the addition of a citizenship question, the Government Accountability Office has designated the census a “high-risk” issue for years, and several congressional committees are looking into the preparations for the count.

The chairman of the House Oversight and Reform Committee’s civil rights subcommittee, Jamie Raskin, is among those raising concerns. He wants Census Bureau officials to testify at an oversight hearing as soon as next month on a variety of issues, including the public outreach campaign for the census.

“We’re looking at the whole thing. This is a constitutional mandate, and we’re afraid the administration is sabotaging it,” the Maryland Democrat said.

The Census Bureau has stressed that the 52 computer systems involved in the 2020 census will be ready to go, and in a statement said it is in regular contact with the GAO about its progress. The agency also said it will release an updated security plan later this year.

“The Census Bureau is working with federal and private sector cybersecurity experts throughout the 2020 census cycle to assure the public that responding to the 2020 census is easy, safe and important,” a spokesperson said in a statement.

The bureau has said it has taken steps such as end-to-end encryption and two-factor authentication to secure census responses and prepare for the count next year. Additionally, it has sought to iron out problems with in-person enumeration it encountered in a 2018 test in Rhode Island.

Separately, the bureau launched a national test of the citizenship question last week, sending copies of the questionnaire to 480,000 select households. The test represents the first real-world examination of the effect of the Trump administration’s decision to add the question, as bureau officials have previously estimated that the question would result in a 5 percent drop in the self-response rate among households with noncitizens, including legal residents and those without documentation. 

Even before the Trump administration took over, however, the Census Bureau received hundreds of millions of dollars less than was needed to match the Commerce Department’s 2015 estimate for a $12.3 billion lifecycle cost of the census. The Trump administration later said that budget was inadequate, and upped its estimated cost to $15.6 billion.


House Democrats have targeted $8.45 billion for the bureau in fiscal 2020 in the annual Commerce-Justice-Science appropriations bill, up from $7.3 billion in new and carryover funding proposed by the Trump administration.

More than $5 billion of those funds will have gone into information technology contracts and infrastructure leading into the census, according to a Commerce Department estimate.  

Those shortfalls forced it to scale back several of the field tests that would have helped test the new systems, outside watchdogs said.

External hacking and disinformation

The 2016 election, separate from Donald Trump’s victory, brought a realization among national security officials that Russia and other foreign powers have an interest in throwing American political systems awry.

Jim Baker, a former general counsel for the FBI now at the free-market advocate R Street Institute, said the 2016 election interference campaign showed Russian familiarity with the American political system, and he fears that they could see a juicy target in the 2020 census. The Russians, or others, could try to disrupt the census by spreading false information online, Baker said.

“Although disinformation campaigns have been around for a long time, this is relatively new, and I don’t know we know yet how to counter the [Internet Research Agency] type of disinformation and meddling,” he said, referring to the Russian company accused of spreading disinformation during the 2016 election.

Representatives for Facebook and Twitter said they’ve met with the Census Bureau and discussed efforts to counter disinformation during the count next year. However, they did not confirm whether they had worked out specific plans with the Census Bureau.

The prospect of an external attack on the census has driven the Census Bureau to lean on the Department of Homeland Security, which has responsibility for the cybersecurity of civilian federal agencies. The GAO and DHS have provided recommendations to improve census security, but GAO Director of Information Technology and Cybersecurity Nick Marinos said the agency still has to demonstrate it can implement fixes quickly after problems are identified.

Congressional committees are also keeping an eye on the run-up. Sen. Gary Peters of Michigan, the ranking member on the Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee, said committee staff have been working with DHS to get information about cybersecurity support for the census.

“We’re worried obviously about cybersecurity on a whole variety of fronts,” Peters said.

A committee aide said it has been receiving regular updates from the GAO about census issues and will soon receive a classified briefing from the Department of Homeland Security on those issues.

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Internal risks

Whether or not an outside attacker tries to topple the census, experts said the bureau is still working to make sure it first stands on its own.

The new online questionnaire response option hasn’t been tested at the scale it will have to operate under next year, according to former Census Bureau Director John Thompson, who left the administration in 2017.

Thompson said the so-called end-to-end response test in 2018 in Rhode Island and the citizenship question test launched last week represent a fraction of the nearly 2 million simultaneous online responses the system may have to handle next year.

“[The 2018 test] really just enabled them to test the interfaces between the systems — is data going from one system to another system properly? But it was such a small test it didn’t simulate the kind of load it is going to have to endure during the census,” Thompson said.

Scaling back the planned testing means that the Census Bureau hasn’t confronted many of the on-the-ground realities of trying to administer a mostly online census, according to Greta Byrum, co-author of a report issued earlier this month from The New School university on census challenges.

Byrum said the bureau ended up not testing its protocols for rural areas without internet or cell service because of the canceled testing. She also noted that the outreach has not yet addressed digital illiteracy or security flaws on user devices that might capture census responses.

“It is clear we need to harness technology to do this. We just question the wholesale transition of the entire system without any testing or verifying or without a control group,” Byrum said.

The technological updates have had substantial effects on census preparation separate from the testing. The Census Bureau has hired thousands fewer employees than in the past for its address verification program later this year, which is meant to rely more on computer mapping and GPS technologies.

That address verification process will be one of the next major milestones in the leadup to the 2020 census, according to Marinos. The Census Bureau needs data from states on new streets as well as the new aerial maps to finish its computer-based approach to the process.

“The next few months will tell us how the bureau is performing in terms of being able to get these systems ready to go,” Marinos said.