Hacking, Glitches, Disinformation: Why Experts Are Worried About the 2020 Census

The government plans to deploy new technology for next year’s head count, but risks abound.

In the run-up to the 2020 census, the government has embraced technology as never before, hoping to halt the ballooning cost of the decennial head count. For the first time, households will have the option of responding online, and field workers going door to door will be equipped with smartphones to log the information they collect.

To make it all work, the Census Bureau needed more computing power and digital storage space, so it turned to cloud technology provided by Amazon Web Services.

What the bureau didn’t realize — until an audit last year — was that there was an unsecured door to sensitive data left open. Access credentials for an account with virtually unlimited privileges had been lost, potentially allowing a hacker to view, alter or delete information collected during recent field tests.

The Census Bureau says that it has closed off this vulnerability and that no information was compromised. But the discovery of the problem highlights the myriad risks facing next year’s all-important head count.

Most concerns about the census have been focused on the Trump administration’s effort to include a question about citizenship status, which officials said Tuesday they were abandoning after being blocked by the United States Supreme Court. But far less attention has been paid to other issues that could threaten the census’s accuracy.

Each census is a staggering logistical lift, but the 2020 count presents challenges the Census Bureau has never confronted before.

The government has ambitious plans to use new digital methods to collect data. But the Census Bureau has had to scale back testing of that technology because of inadequate funding — raising the risk of problems ranging from software glitches to cyberattacks.

Also new is the threat of online disinformation campaigns reminiscent of the 2016 presidential cycle. The heated political discourse about the citizenship question has supplied ample fuel, and researchers say they are already beginning to see coordinated online efforts to undermine public trust in the census and to sow chaos and confusion.

The intense focus on the citizenship question “has drawn away energy and resources in ways that have really been counterproductive to the bureau’s efforts,” said Arturo Vargas, chief executive of the National Association of Latino Elected and Appointed Officials. “To some extent, the bureau is going into 2020 blindfolded.”

The consequences could be profound and enduring. Information gathered during the census is used to determine which states gain or lose seats in the House and votes in the Electoral College, to redraw congressional districts and to allocate hundreds of billions of dollars in federal funding for a host of services, such as health care, education and affordable housing. Businesses rely heavily on the data to make decisions about where to open stores or ship goods.

The Census Bureau said that it has fixed problems identified during testing and is working with other government agencies and private companies to guard against technical mishaps, cyber-related vulnerabilities and the spread of misinformation. “We are confident in the resources we have to conduct a complete and accurate census,” the bureau said.

But the danger if anything goes wrong, said Terri Ann Lowenthal, a former congressional staff member and longtime census expert, is that “public confidence plummets and people decide this is not going to be a good census so we’re not going to respond.”

“At that point,” she said, “we could be headed toward a failed census.”

Mandated by the Constitution, the census has been conducted without fail every 10 years since 1790. The first was conducted by United States marshals who traveled on horseback and asked residents just six basic questions.

Since then, the census has grown far more elaborate, though the process for conducting it — mailing out paper forms and relying heavily on field workers going door to door — remained essentially the same from 1970 through 2010.

Over time, however, costs have soared while response rates have declined. The average cost, in 2020 dollars, to count one housing unit increased from about $16 in 1970 to about $92 in 2010, a Government Accountability Office analysis found.

“We needed a breakthrough,” said Robert Groves, director of the bureau during the 2010 census. “We couldn’t continue the trend of inflating costs using the same methods.”

The transition to new technologies for 2020, such as issuing smartphones to field workers, represents a “huge jump” in the right direction, Mr. Groves said.

The greater use of data collected by other agencies, such as Medicare and Medicaid, could help identify vacant households, making more costly in-person follow-up visits unnecessary. Software that tracks field workers’ progress and directs them to optimal routes could save time.

For experts, the greater use of technology raises two primary questions: Does it work, and is it secure? The Census Bureau’s efforts to answer those questions have been hampered by inadequate resources.

Security tests of some IT systems that were originally supposed to take up to eight weeks had to be completed in about one week, the G.A.O. found. The bureau conducted its critical 2018 dress rehearsal, planned to take place in three communities, in just one: Providence County, R.I.




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