An Update on the 2020 Census

Published: August 15, 2018

CENSUSCybersecurityGovernment PerformanceInformation TechnologyOFFICE OF DECENNIAL CENSUS (COMMERCE)

Last week, the Census Bureau conducted its quarterly program management review with updates from the 2018 End-to-End testing and the count’s cybersecurity strategy.

Each decennial census has a primary goal, “count everyone once, only once, and in the right place.” To achieve this, the Bureau of Census hosts a public program management review (PMR) every quarter with an update on the operations leading up to the 2020 count. The last PMR (conducted August 3rd) covered a range of topics including the program’s contracts status and cybersecurity strategies.

In terms of timeline, the 2018 End-to-End testing, a dress rehearsal for the 2020 Census, will begin to wrap up its operations by the end of August. From it, agency officials have already learned of improvements needed in the in-field canvassing operations of the count as well as connectivity issues for enumerators. Activities in the 2019 time frame include, opening area census offices across the country, in-field address canvassing and launching an advertising campaign.

A total of eight major contracts have been set in place for 2020. The latest contract, the Field IT Deployment Contract, primarily to provide technical support on equipment and software as well as help desk support, was awarded to Unisys Corporation on August 1st. The remaining contract, the Census Print and Mail Vendor Contract, must be recompeted due to bankruptcy troubles by the original vendor. The new print contract is now expected to be awarded in November 2018.

The 2020 Census will prove to be revolutionary, poised to collect data through an internet self-response tool for the first time and sending enumerators out with mobile devices to collect and transmit data to the agency. With these technological improvements to the decennial count, the Census Bureau faces heavy pressure and criticism to ensure respondent data is protected. According to the PMR’s cybersecurity presentation, the program’s main focus will be to improve public perception and trust, address incoming cyber threats, respond immediately to threat activity and partner with the Intelligence Community and private partners to understand and manage threats. Understandably so, the presentation does not disclose all the details in how the agency will achieve these goals, however, it does provide a glimpse into the strategies taken to address any potential threats.

The Census Bureau breaks up the cyber threat category into two: external and internal. External threats include websites and phishing scams that impersonate the bureau, viruses within a respondent’s personal device or external network access, and an invalid response submitted under improper use of a Census ID. To mitigate these types of threats, the agency will depend on industry and other federal agencies to help provide the services to them.  The presentation describes the strategies that will be taken for each external threat:

Internal threats are those that occur within the Census Bureau’s control and include, disruptions to the internet on the self-response site, data breaches of census systems and compromised employee devices. These threats are particularly crucial as the bureau anticipates a 74% response rate through the internet during the 2020 Census and more than 300,000 enumerators using agency-issued devices. For these internal threats, the agency must monitor them closely and directly respond to threats through a design and approach strategy:

All in all, the coming decennial census will prove to be momentous given the advances in operations it seeks to accomplish. With the 2018 testing nearly complete, all systems are now to be “full steam ahead” for the 10 year survey.