May 10, 2019 / 8:28 PM / 16 days ago

Key technology boss at U.S. Census Bureau switches roles

NEW YORK (Reuters) - The U.S. Census Bureau official tasked with managing the massive technology infrastructure underpinning the 2020 census has switched roles, leaving a vacancy in an important spot less than a year before the count.

FILE PHOTO: Balloons decorate an event for community activists and local government leaders to mark the one-year-out launch of the 2020 Census efforts in Boston, Massachusetts, U.S., April 1, 2019. REUTERS/Brian Snyder/File Photo

Atri Kalluri, who ran the Decennial IT Division, moved on April 14 to a new role managing data security, Census spokesman Michael Cook said.

Kalluri now oversees “definition and implementation of policies” for “response security and data integrity,” Cook said. Michael Thieme, the bureau’s assistant director for decennial programs, will handle Kalluri’s previous duties while the bureau searches for a permanent replacement.

Kalluri’s move comes at a crucial time, as the bureau gears up for the first census that will primarily be conducted online. Data derived from the survey are used to divvy up seats in the U.S. Congress and to direct the federal government’s allocation of trillions of dollars of aid each decade.

The Census Bureau is spending nearly $5 billion to fortify technology ahead of next year’s tally. However, a federal government watchdog has said schedule delays, fiscal constraints and personnel vacancies have hampered those efforts.

The census faces “significant cybersecurity risks,” the Government Accountability Office said in an April 30 report. Funding constraints have caused key tests to be delayed or canceled, and the bureau had more than 500 outstanding security flags as of March, the report said.

The GAO also noted “deeper organizational issues” and “skills gaps,” pointing to a Census office where 15 of 44 positions remain vacant.

Some Census insiders who spoke to Reuters said Kalluri’s move has stoked fears that next year’s survey will be vulnerable to IT failures or cybersecurity threats.

Kalluri had expressed frustration in recent months over lingering security flags in some of the technology being built, two sources familiar with the matter told Reuters.

Kalluri did not respond to requests for comment.

Cook described the move as “a decision by bureau leadership as we move from the design phase into testing and implementation.”

“Atri is looking closely at the importance of cybersecurity and fraud security, and how to coordinate this across the organization,” Cook said.

Aside from potentially exposing data, a hack or IT mishap could force more of the census to be done through in-person door-knocking, an inherently costlier and less accurate method.

There is already heightened concern about an undercount, due to the Trump administration’s plan to ask respondents about their citizenship. Demographers and data experts have said that will frighten immigrants and Hispanics into not responding, thereby costing their communities funds and political representation.

High-level personnel changes late in the process can strip the census of “experience that is hard to replace on a dime,” said Terri Ann Lowenthal, a consultant and former congressional staffer overseeing census matters.

“This close to the implementation of the census, it’s important that all of the gears are running like clockwork,” Lowenthal said.

Reporting by Nick Brown; editing by Lauren Tara LaCapra and Susan Thomas

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