2020 census taker (Census Bureau)

Census faces pandemic-related delays, cyber and IT challenges

Along with  a number of IT testing and cybersecurity challenges already facing the 2020 census, the U.S. Census Bureau must now also manage new issues and delays caused by the spread of the coronavirus, according to the Government Accountability Office.

The report details how the Census Bureau, which has started to ramp back after pausing operations amid the lockdowns, must now work to communicate "timely, clear and consistent" information for continuity of operations plans to local field offices, meet previously established targets for self-reporting households, maintain sufficient staffing levels, monitor ongoing risks to IT systems and managing disinformation and misinformation campaigns.

On May 4, the bureau started reopening offices and targeted to resume operations at 211 area offices in all 50 states as of May 29. To prepare for field operations, 99% of Commerce spending the week of May 17 (totaling $51.2 million) was dedicated to census operations and COVID-19. Expenditures included advertising services, laptops and disinfectant supplies, according to a GovWinIQ analysis.

Addressing outstanding cybersecurity weaknesses in systems expected to be used during the census is a top concern. The audit reveals that as of April 2020, the agency was still struggling to implement more than 234 unaddressed remediation plans for "high" and "very high" risk cybersecurity weaknesses in the 52 IT systems that will be used in the census.

Testing schedules for those systems have also been impacted by the pandemic. An official said told auditors that the bureau "was continuing to assess the risks associated with the COVID-19-related schedule changes to the implementation of IT, including the number of enumerator handheld devices expected to be available and the significant contract support required to conduct the 2020 Census."

For instance, the bureau has purchased an additional 125,000 handheld devices in anticipation of hiring more census workers, but it has not conducted testing to ensure that IT systems can handle the increased workload without degrading overall performance. The agency must also reassess its timeframes for reducing contractor-provided IT servers, storage capacity and software licenses in response to schedule delays associated with the pandemic.

The agency must also deal with a wave of disinformation, misinformation and conspiracy theories—often widely shared on social media—about the purpose of the census.

Earlier this year Sen. Gary Peters (D-Mich.), ranking Democrat on the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee, wrote to the Bureau and executives at Facebook, Twitter and Google, calling such campaigns "a significant threat" to achieving an accurate count.

"These private organizations are in unique positions to support the Bureau's fight against misinformation disinformation throughout the 2020 Census, including during the awareness, self-response and Nonresponse Followup phases," Peters wrote to U.S. Census Director Steven Dillingham in February.

Auditors at GAO share those concerns, and urge the bureau to further strengthen internal processes while continuing to forge relationships with social media partners to remove misleading content.

Compressed timeframes caused by the pandemic are also likely to impact the quality and processing of data used for delivering congressional apportionment and redistricting. During past counts, census operators could make up to six door-to-door visits to collect information from a non-responsive household. Amid the pandemic social distancing guidelines, such efforts "may be less effective" and impact the quality of data for hard-to-count populations.

This article was first posted to GCN, a sibling site to GCN.

About the Author

Derek B. Johnson is a senior staff writer at FCW, covering governmentwide IT policy, cybersecurity and a range of other federal technology issues.

Prior to joining FCW, Johnson was a freelance technology journalist. His work has appeared in The Washington Post, GoodCall News, Foreign Policy Journal, Washington Technology, Elevation DC, Connection Newspapers and The Maryland Gazette.


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