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Watchdog chastises Census for missing laptops used for count

Mike Schneider
Associated Press

Orlando, Fla. — More than a dozen laptop computers used for an early phase of the 2020 census were lost, stolen or missing last year, and they may have contained personal information whose confidentiality is protected by federal law, according to an agency watchdog.

A management alert issued last week by the Office of Inspector General said the U.S. Census Bureau was unaware of the missing laptops from last year's address verification process, which preceded the start of the once-a-decade head count of every U.S. resident earlier this year, until the watchdog alerted them. 

The report cited communications problems between the bureau, its contractor and subcontractor staff. After the address-canvassing phase ended last October, the 55,000 laptops used for the verification were supposed to be shipped to a contractor so they could be scrubbed of information.

A briefcase of a census taker is seen as she knocks on the door of a residence Tuesday, Aug. 11, 2020, in Winter Park, Fla.

While the laptops used for verifying addresses were encrypted, there's no way of knowing with certainty that remote commands to wipe the missing computers clean of information were successful, the report said.

The number of missing laptops could be higher, and the bureau must do a better job of overseeing the equipment that currently is being used for the most labor intensive part of the 2020 census — when up to 500,000 door-knockers are heading to homes that haven't yet answered the census questionnaire.

Widespread door-knocking by census takers started last week and will continue through the end of September. The census takers are equipped with 585,000 smartphones and tablets to take down the answers of the respondents whose households they knock on. The 2020 census will help determine the distribution of $1.5 trillion in federal spending and how many congressional seats each state gets.