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Shift to Digital Census Creates Breakdown, Hacking Concerns

Some political observers worry that this year’s census will experience the same technological issues as the recent Iowa caucuses, but on a larger scale.

The U.S. Census Bureau plans to use the internet along with mobile apps to have citizens respond.

However, a government watchdog agency, in addition to the Census Bureau’s inspector general and some lawmakers, are concerned whether those systems are ready.

“I must tell you, the Iowa (caucus) debacle comes to mind when I think of the census going digital,” Eleanor Holmes Norton, the congressional delegate for the District of Columbia, said last week at a hearing on the census.

Experts also consider the census to be an attractive target for anyone seeking to create chaos and undermine confidence in the U.S. government.

In a worst-case scenario, records could be deleted or corrupted with junk data.

The Census Bureau says responses to the questionnaire will be kept confidential through encryption. It is also working with the Department of Homeland Security and private-sector security experts to prevent cyber attacks. In addition, the agency is blocking foreign IP addresses and stopping bots from completing fake responses.

It has also developed back-up systems.

“All systems are go,” according to bureau Director Steven Dillingham.

In addition, there are concerns that the Census Bureau has not finalized its backup plans for the online questionnaire system. The bureau still has nearly 190 corrective actions for cyber security that are considered “high risk” or “very high risk,” the Government Accountability Office says.

Last summer, the bureau’s Office of Inspector General identified weaknesses such as the inability for the Census Bureau to recover cloud-stored data in case of a large-scale attack or disaster.

In Iowa, a new smartphone app was blamed for a delay in the reporting of results from the first presidential contests. Fewer than 200,000 voters chose a candidate.

By contrast, the census will count residents in almost 130 million households with the assistance of 52 IT systems. That headcount is considered the largest peacetime operation the government has undertaken.

An accurate count is important for determining how many congressional seats each state receives, as well as for the distribution of $1.5 trillion in federal spending. Respondents who do not want to answer the online questionnaire will still have the option to complete it by telephone or by mailing in a paper form.

The Census Bureau is prepared to distribute millions of paper forms in the event a catastrophe prevents people from responding online, according to officials.

“We can recover data if we had a breach,” says Albert Fontenot, an associate director at the bureau. “At the worst case, we would send someone out to re-collect that data.”