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Census Bureau kicks off 2020 ad campaign amid fears around privacy and hacking

The Census Bureau’s ad campaign for the 2020 count is displayed Tuesday at Arena Stage in the District. (Sarah L. Voisin/The Washington Post)

The Census Bureau on Tuesday unveiled an ad campaign to persuade every household in America to fill out the once-a-decade survey, which begins next week in remote parts of Alaska.

The decennial count of everyone living in the United States is used to determine a decade’s worth of congressional apportionment, redistricting, and hundreds of billions of dollars in federal funding. But a rising distrust of government, combined with the battle over whether to add a citizenship question and fears that the newly digital survey could be hacked, may make counting every person more difficult than ever.

Many of the 1,000-plus print, TV, radio and Internet ads target immigrant and minority communities, which are traditionally among the hardest to count, and emphasize that data collected by the Census Bureau is confidential and cannot be shared, even with other government agencies.

Bureau Director Steven Dillingham, who will fly this week to Toksook Bay, Alaska, population about 660, to count the first person in the census, introduced the campaign at the District’s Arena Stage, where placards displayed print and TV ads, along with maps and booklets about the census that will go to more than 117,000 schools across the nation.

In one Spanish-language TV spot featuring young Hispanic men, one says he is worried it could be dangerous to fill out the form. Not at all, his friend assures him, saying he filled out the census 10 years ago and it was fine.

The campaign targets audiences in 13 languages, along with African Americans, Native Americans and children, who also are typically undercounted.

But some immigrant advocates said they were distressed there was no mention in the ads of the citizenship question the Supreme Court blocked from the survey last summer.

“We still have concerns about the confusion that still exists around the citizenship question, and that they still don’t have an ad that says there won’t be a citizenship question,” said Terry Minnis, senior director of census and voting programs at Asian Americans Advancing Justice, one of several groups that challenged the question in court.

Ketzirah Lesser, director of strategy for Team Y&R, a group of 13 ad and communications agencies that developed the ad campaign, said the ads did not refer to the citizenship question in part because they were developed before it was clear whether the question would appear on the form.

But the team also decided it was better to stick with positive messaging rather than introduce the idea of a citizenship question to an audience that may not have heard of it, she said, adding, “A surprising number didn’t even know about it, didn’t even know it was a thing.”

Census Bureau spokesman Michael Cook said people were more concerned about confidentiality, which is addressed in the ads.

The lead-up to this year’s count has been unusually fraught. The Trump administration’s attempt to add a question asking about citizenship caused many immigrant and minority communities to worry that filling out the survey could expose them to unwanted government scrutiny. The government has since vowed to get citizenship data from other federal agencies, including the Department of Homeland Security and some state motor vehicle offices.

This census will be the first to be conducted largely digitally, raising concerns about technological failure and hacking. It is also occurring in a low-employment economy, which makes it harder to meet its goal of recruiting 2.7 million applicants for up to 500,000 temporary positions by early March.

Recent reports from the Government Accountability Office and the Department of Commerce inspector general — along with Democratic lawmakers, census experts and civic leaders — have expressed worry about cybersecurity and the bureau’s ability to meet recruiting and hiring goals.

At a House Oversight Committee hearing last week on reaching hard-to-count communities, chairwoman Rep. Carolyn B. Maloney (D-N.Y.) said she was “gravely concerned” that the bureau was unprepared for the 2020 count, citing “cyber threats, limited broadband access, reduced language assistance and gaps in outreach efforts.”

Terri Ann Lowenthal, a former staff director of the House census oversight subcommittee, called hiring “one of the primary issues that will keep census officials up at night for the next six months.”

Civic leaders told the committee that hiring outreach in immigrant communities has been insufficient and that the bureau is not doing enough to correct the misconception many Latinos have that the citizenship question will be on the form.

An October GAO report noted that the bureau missed hiring targets during address canvassing in September and that in some places it had to hire people who lived far from where they would be working, sometimes in another state. The report called that “an early warning for what may occur later” when the bureau needs to hire enumerators.

Tim Olson, associate director for field operations for the bureau, said the backlogs had been resolved and recruitment is on schedule, noting that the bulk of hiring is not set to take place until April. The bureau says it has recruited 1.7 million applicants and is hiring at a rate of nearly 25,000 a day. It recently increased the hourly pay for census workers in more than three-quarters of communities across the country, and it also has been targeting seasonal holiday workers whose jobs ended after Christmas and college students whose classes end in late spring.

The GAO also placed the census on its high risk list, in large part because of challenges in conducting it digitally for the first time, said Nick Marinos, the agency’s director of information technology and cybersecurity.

The bureau has been working with the Department of Homeland Security and private technology companies to secure census data, which will live in the cloud and at the bureau’s data center, and to head off misinformation campaigns similar to those perpetrated around the 2016 election. Last month it announced a new Trust and Safety team to combat misinformation and disinformation.

It is also working closely with Google, Facebook and Twitter, and with Poynter’s International Fact-Checking Network to identify and combat threats, said Stephen Buckner, the bureau’s assistant director of communications.

“We will know very quickly if something is breaking across social media or digital channels that looks suspicious so that we can address it quickly before it spreads . . . and get good content, factual content, back out there,” Buckner said.

In December, Google announced a task force to combat Census 2020-related abuse and fraud across Google and YouTube, and Facebook said it will remove content that misleads people about the U.S. census starting this year.

Preparation has included “red-gaming” the system to locate weak spots and limiting international access to public websites like the one people in the United States will use to complete the survey, said Kevin Smith, the bureau’s chief information officer.

“I’m super confident that we’re going to be able to securely collect, store and disseminate the data securely for the 2020 Census, but from a cybersecurity standpoint I think you would be hard-pressed to find any cybersecurity expert to say that there’s a guarantee of no cybersecurity attacks or bad things happening,” Smith said.