Pandemic could worsen 2020 census IT, cybersecurity challenges

One Census Bureau official worried about the availability of enumerator handheld devices and IT contractor staff for system testing when quarantine lifts.
(Getty Images)

The coronavirus pandemic may exacerbate IT and cybersecurity challenges the 2020 census faces, requiring even greater attention to technical challenges as the Census Bureau looks to complete the survey on a new timeline, according to a Government Accountability Office report released Tuesday.

After suspending all field operations until June 1 and extending data collection from nonresponse follow-ups (NRFUs) from July 31 to Oct. 31, data quality is a concern for the Census Bureau.

The bureau restarted select operations at 211 area census offices but requested statutory relief on deadlines for delivering data to the president to apportion House seats, as well as to the states to redistrict elections.

“[T]he coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) national emergency forced the bureau to make major and unprecedented adjustments to its plans,” reads GAO‘s third update, following a three-month audit. “The delays to key operations could adversely impact downstream operations, undermine the overall quality of the count, and escalate census costs.”


As of June, 21 of GAO’s 112 census recommendations made during the last decade remain unimplemented by the bureau. Challenges with new innovations and IT systems, in particular, earned the census a spot on GAO’s High-Risk List beginning in 2017.

The bureau predicted the census self-response rate by internet, phone and mail would be 60.5% by June 10 — it was at 60.1% as of May 25. Self response began March 12.

Operations span 52 systems, not all of which have been tested and deployed. On April 9, the systems supporting NRFUs launched, but six of 16 operational deliveries remain.

Michael Thieme, assistant director for decennial census programs, systems and contracts,  expressed concern to GAO about the availability of enumerator handheld devices and IT contractor staff for system testing post-pandemic.

“[I]f the Bureau hires more enumerators than originally planned due to, among other reasons, a higher-than-expected workload, there may be a shortage of enumerator handheld devices,” reads the report. “To reduce this risk, the official stated that the Bureau ordered 125,000 additional enumerator handheld devices (for a total of approximately 559,000 devices).”


Additional performance and scalability testing is needed to ensure more devices won’t cause system performance issues, Thieme added.

Timeframes for reducing the number of servers, storage capacity and software licenses contractors are providing have yet to be reassessed.

Work also remains to address cybersecurity weaknesses. At the end of April, 234 high- and very high-risk plans of actions and milestones (POA&Ms) remained open. POA&Ms are required after a full security assessment uncovers vulnerabilities.

The bureau continues to combat disinformation and misinformation about the census circulating online and on social media.

“[I]n March 2020, in response to misinformation, the Bureau issued a statement on its website to clarify that an individual’s 2020 Census response could not be used to impact eligibility for any government benefits, including any potential stimulus payments,” reads the report.


Tech and social media companies coordinate such efforts with the bureau on a weekly basis.

The bureau will have less time to ensure data quality after it’s collected by removing duplicate responses, ensuring information is complete and formatting data files to generate results.

“In April the Bureau stood up a 2020 Data Quality Executive Governance Group to provide guidance on data quality efforts and to facilitate the work of various new and ongoing working groups related to data quality,” reads the report.

Dave Nyczepir

Written by Dave Nyczepir

Dave Nyczepir is a technology reporter for FedScoop. He was previously the news editor for Route Fifty and, before that, the education reporter for The Desert Sun newspaper in Palm Springs, California. He covered the 2012 campaign cycle as the staff writer for Campaigns & Elections magazine and Maryland’s 2012 legislative session as the politics reporter for Capital News Service at the University of Maryland, College Park, where he earned his master’s of journalism.

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