Though the bureau said it has fixed the problems identified during this dry run, the G.A.O. expressed concern over the missed opportunity to test new technology in places such as rural West Virginia or tribal land in Washington State — areas that would have been covered under the original plan.
“Our concern is that the bureau may not know what it doesn’t know,” said Robert Goldenkoff, director of the Government Accountability Office’s strategic issues team. “Not every place looks like Providence, Rhode Island.”
In Providence and during other, smaller-scale field tests, census workers encountered technological issues, the G.A.O. reported. A software glitch sent multiple canvassers to the same block. Some workers had trouble finding an internet connection to transmit the information they had collected. Others had trouble recording people’s responses in an application on their smartphones.
These types of small hang-ups, while manageable in one community, could amount to big problems on a national scale, G.A.O. has warned.
And then there is the risk of a cyberattack. The Commerce Department’s Office of Inspector General, which discovered the cloud security problem last year during an audit, said the vulnerability it found was “potentially catastrophic.” If a hacker had gained access to the lost user credentials, the inspector general found, the Census Bureau “would have been powerless to stop an attacker from causing irreparable harm.”
Hackers could also target bureau employees with phishing emails containing links that, when clicked, install malware, for example. In 2016, a cyberattack forced a temporary shutdown of the Australian census’s online response site, prompting the social media hashtag #CensusFail.
The Census Bureau said it has been able to test its IT systems in a variety of settings and that its cybersecurity team “is partnering with federal agencies including the Department of Homeland Security, the federal intelligence community, as well as industry experts to share threat intelligence information.”