Congress

Senators press census chief on cyber, outreach fears

After citizenship question abandoned, worries continue

Sen. Gary Peters, D-Mich., arrives in the Capitol building for a vote on April 10, 2018. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)

The Census Bureau’s chief on Tuesday pushed back on concerns about cyberattacks and outreach in rural areas in testimony before the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee.

In the first congressional testimony by a bureau official since the Trump administration dropped a citizenship question from the 2020 census, the issue was only briefly addressed. Senators instead focused on the implementation of the count next year, which will be the first to rely primarily on online responses. That change has raised fears of cyber intrusions and technology shortfalls.

[Trump steers again toward Supreme Court with census citizenship executive order]

Census Bureau Director Steven Dillingham acknowledged limitations to the census online response option, and said the bureau will need to lean on local groups where internet availability is limited and the population is harder to count.

“We cannot conduct this census without the partnerships and the people helping us,” Dillingham said.

Dillingham frequently leaned on what he called “trusted voices” in local communities when faced with questions about how to count people on tribal reservations, rural areas and in inner cities.

“We need efforts at the grocery store, we need people at the churches,” Dillingham said.

Two of the panel’s Democrats, Committee ranking member Sen. Gary Peters, of Michigan, and Sen. Jacky Rosen, of Nevada, got into extended exchanges with Dillingham over the agency’s preparations for a cyberattack or misinformation campaign. After the hearing, Peters told CQ he was “encouraged” by Dillingham’s answers that they’ve taken steps to minimize those risks, but there’s more to watch out for.

“We have to watch every step because I still have major concerns,” Peters said. “Cybersecurity is critical, misinformation campaigns I’m concerned about, and really the hard-to-reach population, especially with the move to online [responses] we have to make sure all of them are counted.”

Republicans on the panel appeared relieved after comments by Dillingham and testimony from Government Accountability Office witnesses. “I do leave this hearing feeling a lot better about the census, said panel Chairman Ron Johnson, a Wisconsin Republican.

A director of the GAO’s strategic issues team, Robert Goldenkoff, said “trust, but verify” that the census will deal with issues ranging from untested computer systems to catching up with staff hiring.

“I don’t think we are looking at a disaster but I think we are looking at a lot of work and the Census Bureau is doing that,” Goldenkoff said.

Separately, Goldenkoff said the census faces perennial issues that existed before Trump’s push for the citizenship question.

“Even without the current issues going on in the world there still always has been this layer of difficulty of distrust in the government,” Goldenkoff said.

After dominating news of the decennial count for months, senators largely avoided the citizenship question and Dillingham mentioned it only twice. He said the agency is still studying the president’s executive order to have federal agencies collect citizenship data, and he has created an interagency working group to assemble that data.

The second he said that despite the controversy over the citizenship question, which the Supreme Court blocked in a ruling last month, the attention may help participation because “people know now that the census is very important.”

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