America's 2020 Census systems are a $15bn cyber-security tire fire

Code not finished or properly tested, lack of staff, and more, Senate warned


Analysis In 2020, America will run its once-a-decade national census, but the results may not reflect reality if hackers manage to have their way.

On Tuesday, the US Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee heard that the 2020 census will be the first to make extensive use of electronic equipment. For example, census workers will be given tablets to interview people who can't be bothered filling in and sending back their forms.

Crucially, the US Census Bureau must patch vulnerabilities and install strong defenses in the computer systems it has set up to find and tabulate American citizens. With less than three years to go, a little more hustle in that department is needed, it seems.

hacking

A draft US law to secure election computers that isn't braindead. Well, I'm stunned! I gotta lie down

READ MORE

"The bureau has not addressed several security risks and challenges to secure its systems and data, including making certain that security assessments are completed in a timely manner and that risks are at an acceptable level," Eugene Dodaro, the US Comptroller General, said in a statement read out during the Senate hearing.

"It is important that the bureau quickly address these challenges."

Previously, the census was recorded by mailing paper forms to every household in the country, and then dispatching data collectors to quiz citizens who don’t return their completed paperwork. Dodaro reported that "because the nation’s population is growing larger, more diverse, and more reluctant to participate," response rates were at an historic low: just 63 per cent of households replied by mail in 2010 compared to 78 per cent in 1970.

As a result, the bureau had to recruit a load of temporary workers to manually obtain people's details. After the 2010 census, someone had the bright idea to make the process more electronic, with workers using fondleslabs to input data.

This was billed as a cost-saving measure but those familiar with large IT projects can see where this is going. The 2010 census cost $12.3bn to carry out, up 31 per cent on the 2000 poll, and the 2020 exercise is expected to cost $15.6bn, and costs may yet rise higher.

Part of the reason for the massive cost increase is the aforementioned use of handheld electronic devices by workers. The data collectors were supposed to use their own phones when out in the field, but this was scrapped once someone, thankfully, thought through the security and compatibility implications.

High tech doesn't equal secure

Dodaro said the US Government Accountability Office has identified 43 electronic systems that are to be used in the 2020 census. None have undergone the required security certification – and one, the code used to tabulate all the data, won’t even finish development until March 2019 at the earliest. Any assessment and debugging of this software will be rather last minute.

As a result, the GAO has declared the Census Bureau a "high-risk agency," and wants to conduct a thorough test of all its systems next year. However, some of the electronic systems won’t be ready by then, and those that are ready are already showing problems, and most haven't undergone penetration testing.

For example, testing this year in three regions of the country revealed problems in transmitting addresses and maps to workers' devices, and, in seven cases, information was accidentally deleted from the slabs. Census collectors also found problems with cellphone coverage that meant they had to drive to the nearest town to file their results.

The situation is complicated further by staffing turmoil within the bureau. The head of the agency resigned shortly after Trump was elected, and Dodaro reported that as of October last year 60 per cent of positions at the bureau were unfilled.

Add into this the experience in online censuses from Down Under. Last year the Australian census, which was also trialing an IT-heavy approach to gathering data, was taken offline when a distributed-denial-of-service attack knocked down servers.

The other concern is that the data could be manipulated by hackers unknown. And the US census data is vital not only for government planners but also for the politics of the republic itself.

Census data is used to determine congressional districts for voting by assessing how many people live in a certain area. It is also used to devise education and public sector funding so that the needs of the population can be met.

Dodaro said the GAO is keeping a close eye on the systems and will be conducting further security testing – if the code is ready to do so. He said he was hopeful the system could be made secure, but we're all heard that before. ®

Similar topics

Broader topics


Other stories you might like

  • IT staffing, recruitment biz settles claims it discriminated against Americans
    Foreign workers favored over US residents because that's what clients wanted, allegedly

    Amtex Systems Incorporated, an IT staffing and recruiting firm based in New York City, has agreed to settle claims it discriminated against American workers because company clients wanted workers with temporary visas.

    The US Department of Justice on Wednesday announced the agreement, which followed from a US citizen filing a discrimination complaint with the DoJ's Civil Rights Division’s Immigrant and Employee Rights Section (IER).

    "IT staffing agencies cannot unlawfully exclude applicants or impose additional burdens because of someone’s citizenship or immigration status," said Assistant Attorney General Kristen Clarke of the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division, in a statement. "The Civil Rights Division is committed to enforcing the law to ensure that job applicants, including US workers, are protected from unlawful discrimination."

    Continue reading
  • Will this be one of the world's first RISC-V laptops?
    A sneak peek at a notebook that could be revealed this year

    Pic As Apple and Qualcomm push for more Arm adoption in the notebook space, we have come across a photo of what could become one of the world's first laptops to use the open-source RISC-V instruction set architecture.

    In an interview with The Register, Calista Redmond, CEO of RISC-V International, signaled we will see a RISC-V laptop revealed sometime this year as the ISA's governing body works to garner more financial and development support from large companies.

    It turns out Philipp Tomsich, chair of RISC-V International's software committee, dangled a photo of what could likely be the laptop in question earlier this month in front of RISC-V Week attendees in Paris.

    Continue reading
  • Did ID.me hoodwink Americans with IRS facial-recognition tech, senators ask
    Biz tells us: Won't someone please think of the ... fraud we've stopped

    Democrat senators want the FTC to investigate "evidence of deceptive statements" made by ID.me regarding the facial-recognition technology it controversially built for Uncle Sam.

    ID.me made headlines this year when the IRS said US taxpayers would have to enroll in the startup's facial-recognition system to access their tax records in the future. After a public backlash, the IRS reconsidered its plans, and said taxpayers could choose non-biometric methods to verify their identity with the agency online.

    Just before the IRS controversy, ID.me said it uses one-to-one face comparisons. "Our one-to-one face match is comparable to taking a selfie to unlock a smartphone. ID.me does not use one-to-many facial recognition, which is more complex and problematic. Further, privacy is core to our mission and we do not sell the personal information of our users," it said in January.

    Continue reading
  • Meet Wizard Spider, the multimillion-dollar gang behind Conti, Ryuk malware
    Russia-linked crime-as-a-service crew is rich, professional – and investing in R&D

    Analysis Wizard Spider, the Russia-linked crew behind high-profile malware Conti, Ryuk and Trickbot, has grown over the past five years into a multimillion-dollar organization that has built a corporate-like operating model, a year-long study has found.

    In a technical report this week, the folks at Prodaft, which has been tracking the cybercrime gang since 2021, outlined its own findings on Wizard Spider, supplemented by info that leaked about the Conti operation in February after the crooks publicly sided with Russia during the illegal invasion of Ukraine.

    What Prodaft found was a gang sitting on assets worth hundreds of millions of dollars funneled from multiple sophisticated malware variants. Wizard Spider, we're told, runs as a business with a complex network of subgroups and teams that target specific types of software, and has associations with other well-known miscreants, including those behind REvil and Qbot (also known as Qakbot or Pinkslipbot).

    Continue reading
  • Supreme Court urged to halt 'unconstitutional' Texas content-no-moderation law
    Everyone's entitled to a viewpoint but what's your viewpoint on what exactly is and isn't a viewpoint?

    A coalition of advocacy groups on Tuesday asked the US Supreme Court to block Texas' social media law HB 20 after the US Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals last week lifted a preliminary injunction that had kept it from taking effect.

    The Lone Star State law, which forbids large social media platforms from moderating content that's "lawful-but-awful," as advocacy group the Center for Democracy and Technology puts it, was approved last September by Governor Greg Abbott (R). It was immediately challenged in court and the judge hearing the case imposed a preliminary injunction, preventing the legislation from being enforced, on the basis that the trade groups opposing it – NetChoice and CCIA – were likely to prevail.

    But that injunction was lifted on appeal. That case continues to be litigated, but thanks to the Fifth Circuit, HB 20 can be enforced even as its constitutionality remains in dispute, hence the coalition's application [PDF] this month to the Supreme Court.

    Continue reading

Biting the hand that feeds IT © 1998–2022