Dec 4, 2019

Report: Government workers concerned new digital census isn't ready

Government employees involved in the development of the new digital census system, intended to record all census data in 2020, allege cost overruns, spotty design and foreseeable security concerns, Reuters reports.

Why it matters: The obvious parallel — and worst-case scenario — for a faulty census system would be the rollout disaster during the Obama presidency, which was initially unable to handle the broad scope of its mission. If that's the case with the census, everything from congressional seats to federal funding could be botched for a decade.

Via Reuters, which based its report on 30 interviews with sources associated with the new system, internal communications and budgeting documents, the census system is struggling with problems, including:

  • Design: The system is intentionally designed in a way that makes it difficult to swap out or upgrade faulty code, in favor of a cheaper solution, tangling all aspects of the software together.
    • The contractor hired to build the system is redesigning an off-shelf solution to meet the census' needs, rather than developing from the ground up. Some government workers believe that the commercial system the contractor started with was too far away from the needs of the census to adapt.
  • Budget: The projected cost of building the system ballooned to $167 million — twice the original cost and approximately $40 million more than what the government thought it would pay for in-house programmers to develop it themselves.
  • Security: An internal communication showed concerns that the contractor tasked with defending the site was not adequately staffed to perform digital forensics of a breach. Furthermore, security testing revealed severe enough soft spots to cause internal "panic," including a scenario wherein a computer at a Russian internet address was able to tunnel into supposedly secure areas.

What they're saying: A representative from the census said that the Reuter’s story contained “inaccuracies and outdated information,” but would investigate security concerns.

  • “We are working with leading experts from the public and private sector to ensure the security and performance of our systems make it easy and safe to respond,” the census representative said.

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