back to article US census takers fight angry Americans for their data

The results from the US 2010 Decennial Census are guaranteed by the end of the year. However, those who collected it - called enumerators - already know quite a bit about the state of the nation. There's no good news. The census, conducted once every 10 years, hired a few hundred thousand Americans to collect names, ages and …


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  1. Doug Glass

    Wrong Take Pommy

    It's all about privacy and an intrusive government. As some of you might remember, we yanks tend to get rather angry when a government becomes too invasive and possessive. We have been known to take action on occasion to put a stop to that. I think you might find that in your more progressive history books under "1776".

    1. william henderson 1


      and now, with all those guns, you will role over and do as you are told, just as you have done every year since "1776".

    2. Lottie

      Small difference

      There's a difference between a census - something designed to generate a snapshot of the make-up of the country once every x number of years- and a prying government.

      I also got the impression the author was one of your fellow yanks. The bit about how they still walk around the neighbourhoods they'd worked was what gave me that idea.

      Out of curiosity, did you RTFA?

      1. maxpowers43


        they're only supposed to request the number of persons in the house. not all the rest they tried to act as if was mandated. it's the attitude and trickery that pissed people off.

      2. Penguin herder
        Big Brother

        RE: Small Difference - BIG problem

        "There's a difference between a census - something designed to generate a snapshot of the make-up of the country once every x number of years- and a prying government."

        Yes, the US Constitution mandates a census be taken every ten years to apportion the US House of Representatives - great, no problem. When they start asking things like how many flush toilets I have, whether or not I own my home, etc. (which they do), then it becomes a prying government.

        1. Just An Engineer
          Thumb Down

          They asked you what???

          Jezzus numb nuts, They ask simple things like name, do you own or rent, and how many people live here.

          They do not care about flush toilets or how many rooms you have. They will ask in a follow up more detailed questionnaire which is entirely voluntary questions like household income, and occupation for the people living there.

          1. Penguin herder

            RE: They asked you what???

            "They do not care about flush toilets or how many rooms you have. They will ask in a follow up more detailed questionnaire which is entirely voluntary questions like household income, and occupation for the people living there."

            You might want to do some reading:



            None of this nonsense is needed to apportion the US House. They need to know how many eligible voters live at each address; nothing more.

    3. jotheberlock


      I suspect you'll find the author is an American just like yourself, both from spelling in his other articles and the second paragraph of the story -

      'The census, conducted once every 10 years, hired a few hundred thousand Americans to collect names, ages and race data, using pencils and forms. '

      But, you know, don't let me get in the way of your childish xenophobia.

    4. Tom7

      Sigh. Americans.

      Didn't go so far as to... you know... read the article, did you? Bits like, "constitutionally mandated." And has been since, erm, 1776. It's one of the things the revolutionary government set up. Or the bit that said that the author is, in fact, American.

      1. Dave Walker


        Right point, but minor error: The Constitution was ratified in 1786, about a decade after the Declaration of Independence was circulated.

        DX in Philadelphia, where it was signed.

      2. F111F
        Paris Hilton

        1788, not 1776

        The Constitution of the United States was ratified in 1788, not 1776.

        Paris, for it's exactly something she'd not know.

      3. unitron

        Forgotten about The Articles of Confederation, have you?

        "Bits like, "constitutionally mandated." And has been since, erm, 1776."

        1789, actually.

        Enumerator, 1980 Census, 1989 pre-list. Interesting experience.

    5. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      "Wrong Take Pommy"?

      The writer is American.

      Actually, you should try reading your own history books; the first American revolution was over representation. I'm also not sure why you say "we", the whole point in a revolution is that it happens within a country.

    6. Chronigan

      Constitutionally mandated

      As noted in the article the taking of the census is required under the Constitution. It is your duty as a citizen to provide the information needed so that the goverment can provide services and allot seats in the House of Representatives.

      1. maxpowers43


        the number of people living in the house is what is mandated the rest is bullying. it is our duty as citizens to resist any law that is not constitutional and any law that is not in the spirit of the constitution is automatically unconstitutional!

        1. Andrew the Invertebrate


          what was originally mandated was to count the number of white people, the number of freed black people and only three fifths of enslaved blacks, indians weren't to be counted at all.

          The original sprit of the consitution was that only white people's views counted.

          It took 90 years and the 14th Amendment to change that particular piece of wisdom, all of which shows that the needs of census change over time and the US constitution was never meant to be set in stone and isn't something that should be hidden behind when logic and reason are against you

          1. Daniel 4

            Re: seriously???

            You, sir, are a jackass.

            What was originally mandated was what was necessary to count the population as needed in order to allocated seats in the House of Representatives (oh, and a few other things, but all based on the same notion of counting representation), same as today. At that time, yes, "[t]he original sprit of the consitution was that only white people's views counted."

            However, if you haven't noticed, that spirit has changed just a bit. We've even had an amendment or two in there since then. As a result, we no longer count the number of white people, freed black people, 3/5ths of slaves and ignore the natives. We have a proper counting and get on with it. And that's been the case for a while now, so get over yourself.


    7. BoldMan


      To which I respond remember 1812.

    8. Andrew the Invertebrate

      Anyone for Tea?

      Well hopefully all the rest of the right wing, nut job, teabaggers like yourself will have actively stood in the way of the census, so as not to provide an accurate count. That way the states with the more than average numbers of right wing, nut job, teabaggers will have less representation in terms of numbers of congressmen and electoral college votes in the 2012 elections.

    9. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward


      "...we yanks tend to get rather angry when a government becomes too invasive and possessive."

      When exactly? Other than the Civil War (over whether it was cool to own other human beings - a lot of you thought it was), the Civil Rights movement (over whether it was cool to treat other human beings as second class citizens - again, a lot of you thought it was) and the Vietnam protests I can't recall too many incidents since 1776 where you have done anything more than get a little vocal. I mean you never bother actually doing anything about this invasive government you talk about other than rant and rave on Fox news, do you?

      Then there's elections, which you could well use to "put a stop to that", only you can't even manage that. You just keep serially electing whichever liar can amass the most corporate cash and fluently talk bullshit, then seem quaintly surprised when they turn 180 and violate your unlubricated freedom-loving ringpiece with just the same verve and enthusiasm as the last liar to pull the wool over your poor impressionable eyes four years earlier. As mugs go, you lot are second to none.

      So before getting all shouty about "poms", why not read the constitution and find out what it actually says. You might just find the same commie sympathisers who mandated the census were the movers and shakers in "1776".

    10. Tom Maddox Silver badge


      I just want to highlight that, as an American, I do not approve of nor support this "Doug Glass" (undoubtedly not his real name so as to remain "off the grid" despite the fact that he's posting on the Internet, which was developed by the US Government) in his paranoid idiocy. I had heard all the right-wing rants about how invasive the census was, and then I got my form (somehow, for the first time ever--not sure what happened in previous years), and I was shocked . . . by how utterly innocuous the questions were. You would have to be an absolute loon to consider them invasive.

      So, Doug, please STFU. You're making the rest of us look bad.

    11. Anonymous Coward

      Perhaps you need to read those books for yourself, eh?

      Prior to 1776, that wasn't your government it was ours in charge. You lot got fed up with us and decided to put your own mob in charge, with I might add the help of of France and little known gentleman from Norfolk here in Blighty, by the name of Thomas Paine! As a Yank, if you don't know who Mr Paine is, you should be very ashamed of yourself.

      On another note, I would love to know when you lot have ever bothered to stand up to your government? Other than when some slavers from the south states got worried about having to do a bit of hard work for themselves, when the north decided to do the decent thing and free the slaves!

      I can't stand the US governemtn, I refuse to visit due to the way your government treats we foreign nationals, but even I seem to have a slightly better clue about your history than you do!

    12. Trevor_Pott Gold badge

      @Doug Glass

      A census is an example of intrusive government? Really? A data collection mechanism designed to enable the folks in charge to make better, more informed decisions. Something that allows the people who live in a country know a little bit more about said country.


      No offence is intended here...but I have to view that kind of statement as either "you are victim of some pretty blatant Tea Party propaganda" or "you are off your meds." Together, those two would probably have a synergistic effect.

      Seriously: WTF?

    13. thecakeis(not)alie

      ****ing teabaggers.

      Will someone remind me why exactly we let the yanks have their own country again? Hey China...time to do something with all that American cash and property you own.

      Here's a plan: the teabaggers want to build a giant wall around their precious bit of land? Terrified and xenophobic of all that is different? Friend to corporates foe to mankind? Let's help them! Brick by brick, the entire world should help! A big, tall wall behind which all the teabaggers can live. No dang furriners! No commies! No liberal lefties of any kind! I say let them split off their own country from the rest of the US and build a gigantic wall around it.

      Then we can fill it with water.

      Hurray! Problem solved.

      1. Suboptimal Planet


        Yes indeed, Comrade. Chinese hegemony would be far preferable to American ...

        It's possible to be anti-state without being pro-corporate. It's possible to be socially liberal and fiscally conservative. It's possible to have compassion for your fellow human beings without believing in compulsory redistribution of wealth.

        You're on the road to serfdom, matey. Find a better path.

    14. Sarah Bee (Written by Reg staff)

      Re: Wrong Take Pommy

      Doug - don't throw insults around, please, and try not to be so patronising.

  2. Lottie
    Thumb Up

    Interesting indeed

    Thanks for a very interesting read. Fascinating stuff!

  3. Anonymous Coward
    Thumb Up

    See below

    Thanks for that interesting insight.

  4. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    Looks like.....

    ...they also managed to assess how much the American people trust their government.

  5. Pascal Monett Silver badge

    I love it

    The wiretappings, the locking up without proper trial, those are not subjects that should lead to a public outcry.

    No, let's use The Census to let the government know that we do not agree to "the encroachment of civil liberties".


    That's a bit like blaming the parking ticket for the cost of Income Tax.

    1. Anonymous Coward

      true but...

      part of the reason people responded to the census the way they did is because this was the first time an actual federal representative was coming over to the house uninvited. the fact that they didn't bring their compound(baby) burning tanks by default just sweetened the deal.

      1. Steven Hunter

        Well yes, except actually not.

        "part of the reason people responded to the census the way they did is because this was the first time an actual federal representative was coming over to the house uninvited."

        Well yes, except for the fact that the census has been performed by Actual Federal Representatives every ten years since 1790 (inclusive). So unless they're less than 10 years old, immigrated to the US sometime in the last 10 years, or slept through the previous census(es) then it's already happened before and they lived to tell.

        My mother was an enumerator in the 1990s Census and people were much more cooperative then. It was only the crazy (think Hannibal Lecter) or red-neck (think Early Cuyler) who didn't want the census people to count them. This current paranoid right-wing resistance is new and directly traceable to Fox News.

        I absolutely DO NOT understand why any group would want to intentionally under represent themselves in the census. Census data is used to determine the distribution of representatives in the House and for purposes of determining funding for a LOT of Federal programs (road creation/repair, school funding, etc)

        1. Anonymous Coward

          The group that doesn't want Federal fiunding

          I did not want to tell the census takers any more information than the age, gender, and number of persons living in my house. This information is sufficient for basic demographic profiling. There is no need for them to have my name. Telling them my ethnic background helps the government try and profile areas for funding based on that ethnic background, a practice I find reprehensible; believing as I do that all people should be treated equally. I, as a general rule, would like to impede all forms of federal funding as all of said funding comes with strings attached that I believe violate the 10th amendment (irrespective of the the Supreme Court rulings to the contrary due to perverse use of both the commerce and the Necessary and Proper Clauses).

          Consider any fouling of funding an act of Civil Disobedience. I would prefer as little government as possible.

          The government should be limited to preserving peoples "Life, Liberty, and Possessions" (John Locke, Second Treatise on Government). I believe a government restricted to the current US Constitution under Thomas Jefferson's political belief system and excluding James Madison's is a government with a proper balance of power.

        2. Suboptimal Planet

          Cooperate, Comrade!

          I'm amazed.

          I'd expect Reg readers to be independent-minded, but most of those commenting here seem very distressed at the thought of the slightest nonconformance.

          Here's a simple, non-invasive way to establish the distribution of representatives: count how many votes there are in state elections.

  6. Spanners Silver badge

    A New Slogan

    I move that we have a new revolutionary phrase...

    "No representation without taxation."

    One of the purposes of a census it for the governmant to help work out income and expenditure. If you do not want to be listed as a citizen with the responsibilities that gives, maybe you do not deserve the rights either.

    I am not just talking about voting. In the USA you can have your right to bear arms, in Europe, we have our welfare states. Other benefits include driving licences, property rights and more. If people do not want to participate in society, perhaps they would like to surrender all those rights too.

    In other words put up or shut up.

  7. Gannon (J.) Dick


    I was a NRFU Enumerator. Everything the Author says is correct in detail. Nonetheless, I probably will say (after I file taxes next year) that I had way too much fun for what I was paid.

    I worked near a Lake, and had my share of FoxNews sodden bozo's. Once they were too drunk to escape by jet ski, you had them. That "get a real (productive) job" line becomes easy to laugh at when the speaker is busy fishing. And even bored rich kids will not tell you they are busy updating Facebook.

    I had to turn down a lot of beers and Margarita's. I'll be catching up for years.

  8. Anonymous Coward

    fun article

    I enjoyed the writing style, very entertaining. The upside of census dodgers is it minimizes their power. Seats in the House of represenatives are given by population counts- from the census. Also federal aid, school funding, road funding etc etc- all are affected by census data. All these kooks have done is diminish their influence....and surely we can all agree that's a good thing.

  9. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward


    ...that The Register, who does seem to be a privacy advocate on more than one occasion, published this slanted and somewhat apologist piece.

    The Census is a great idea for any organization, including governments, but almost always requires the threat of force and punishment to get the population interviewed numbers it requires. Of course, one can argue that it is for the common good, or at least one group of people's vision of the common good, but if that vision is not compelling enough then there is always the big stick to force people to do what you want. Instead of using that as a statistic, the number of people that refused to be engaged, it turns out to be the Cartman argument: "You must respect my authoritay!". Remember, when Cartman says that we think it is a joke too.

    As well, the integrity of the results is not guaranteed and seeing as demographics are almost always potential political fodder, one has to wonder how much influence is put to spin, massage, add or delete data. Observe the politics of demographics and voting districts before you dismiss that as being unlikely. Remembering that the US has a history of rounding up persons based on race, national origin, and political bent, there is a reasonable argument for being wary of anything that collects semi-anonymous (the results can be searched by zip code so there is a geographic marker, maybe something more detailed) data for government use. In another context, if this were another State gathering this kind info ( we would be concerned. So, unless you believe in the fundamental goodness of the US government and ignore or excuse its sometimes contrary history, the Census is worthy of skepticism.

    1. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      Not ironic at all.

      It's anecdotal "evidence", the plural of which is empathically _not_ data, but it does paint an interesting picture. It might even serve as a useful reminder just what goes on "behind the scenes" of policymaking, here the gathering of the raw numbers on which a lot is based.

      While I fully agree that gathering too much data is easily dangerous right down to deadly --for example, the Dutch government registered religion of all citizens prior to WWII so they could give each the proper burial, which helped the nazis no end with creating the need to hold more burials all right-- there is still the basic problem of policy making that needs *something* to go on.

      "El reg" might generally like privacy but you can't always just take away the data and expect everything to be peachy. Though probably more often than is commonly believed, and where not well maybe we can change the process so it can make do with less data. We'll see. But the point is, it doesn't do to just close our eyes and hope the problems will go away.

      The USoA government feels the need to hold a census. Fine. It's even in their constitution. Fine. So they ask more than they're supposed to. Not so fine. So they might or might not do shady things with all that data. Best look into it then.

      But stick our heads in the sand? Not such a wonderful idea, sir.

      Note that over on the right side of the pond, and not just Blighty, that sort of thing is pulled out of databases that the governments run anyway. You know, birth and death registers,but also the registers of who lives where and the like -- some of which carry right hefty penalties if you fail to register yourself within N days of moving in. In that respect rightpondian readers could easily think the USoAians to be whiny bitches about something relatively minor. "Who lives where". Big deal. But maybe not. Anyway, it is all too easy to overlook the sometimes stunningly big differences between the various nation states around.

      This piece, though, is more about showing what it was like to gather that data, painting a picture that is different again from what you'll be able to read in the official numbers. That, too, is useful to consider.

      And hey, even a well-written contrary opinion is can be a good read. If all you read is articles you agree with then that's very cute but you're doing it wrong.

      1. Anonymous Coward
        Anonymous Coward

        Still Ironic...

        First, I don't think that I have heard that expression before, "anecdotal "evidence"", it seems to be a contradiction of terms. If you want to use legal terms, i.e. evidence, it might be better to describe it as testimony. However, if you were to do that, in a courtroom I would have to object to those parts that are not facts and are just opinion. If you want to describe this as anecdotal, then it is no longer reporting, or at least not good reporting which is balanced and requires a basis in fact and not opinion. If you want to call this a story with some basis in fact, you might come closer to the mark, but then we should probably be reading it on a story site, not El Reg.

        As the title implies that you are responding to the article titled "Ironic" I am not sure if I understand all your points. The point that gathering too much personal data can be deadly for minorities or groups out of favor was also mentioned in the OP where it stated "...Remembering that the US has a history of rounding up persons based on race, national origin, and political bent, ..." and is agreed with. So, going forward with the point that in the EU, where more personal data is collected than in the US, the population is less whiny seems, well, illogical. If collecting personal data is dangerous then collecting more personal data is more dangerous. Rather than being dismissive of protesting personal data collection as being whiny, I would think that it deserves applauding as it provides a higher standard that can be used as an example. Yes?

        However, the fundamental points of the OP were not just about collecting personal data and what evil may be done with it. They were also about: 1) how those who refused to comply were labeled; 2) how the US government uses force to gain compliance; 3) how it has a history of abusing groups that can be identified via personal data like race, national origin, and political bent; and that given those points, 4) it is not improbable to be skeptical of the Census. Those are the points that I think should be discussed. As it seems to be the first point that is ignored the most, I have to wonder why? Is it too subtle? Have we already stopped noticing when someone calls people crazy, as in loony for thinking thoughts like that, for resisting a government process to force us to help with gathering personal data? They may be crazy for resisting a process that cannot be stopped but I don't think that is not what the author meant.

        As for the point that government needs that info, I think that is probably true. The question is always what do they need it for? And what are they going to do when they have enough?

      2. Suboptimal Planet

        Relatively minor?

        A more balanced comment than most here.

        In general, I think the less a government knows about 'its' citizens, the better. And the more centralised the information, the more dangerous it is.

        I'm glad I read the article, but the naive trust of the state shown by its author and by the majority of commenters here is disturbing. Likewise for their eagerness to crack down on those who don't conform.

    2. Suboptimal Planet

      Slanted indeed

      Well said. This was a disappointing piece from El Reg. The champagne socialists are out in force, condemning even the mildest resistance to the will of the collective.

  10. The Unexpected Bill

    Thanks for the article.

    My hat is off to you for an interesting read. Or rather, I'll buy you a "pint".

    Those who are accusing this author of a "slant" are misunderstanding what was written. It's just an accounting of what happened, no more and no less.

    I always wondered about what the census-takers employed by the US government did in the course of their jobs and I appreciate the introspective. I actually got to meet one this year, as I own a house where nobody lives. (The place is a falling down dump that will be removed someday. I don't call it the Roach Palace for nothing.) A man in a red pickup truck came by and saw me out fiddling around in the driveway. He asked if anyone lived here and I said no. I talked with him for a while and really wish I'd have asked him some more questions about his temporary work. Only trouble is that I didn't really know what to ask...

    1. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      Then again...

      Actually, I think this quote is not neutral:

      "...The non-responders fell into two general categories. The first included the transient poor and those in the middle class severely damaged by the Great Recession. The second category included crazies from the upper class as well as those looking up enviously - people with the now common idea, reinforced daily by TV, that the US government is tyrannical and Stalinist...."

      The author divided potential targets as either those that complied, those that could not comply, and those that refused to comply. Those that refused to comply were crazies and the envious. I think that is vilification, yes? The only caveat to his analysis is that he said the 'second category' included those kinds of people so it may also have included people he might consider sane and not envious. But as he doesn't actually say that we can only conjecture it, if we are feeling benevolent, and by that benevolent logic you can also include any other group not mentioned. Given that he has already disparaged that category though, I suspect most people would add their other least liked groups. And that, along with the obvious pejorative descriptions of people who were 'census-dodgers', is why I call this slanted.

      1. david wilson

        @AC 23:09

        >>"The author divided potential targets as either those that complied, those that could not comply, and those that refused to comply. Those that refused to comply were crazies and the envious. I think that is vilification, yes? "

        Possibly, but it may also be a fairly accurate refelction of what the author came across, or at least, an honest attempt at recollection.

        Now, it's quite possible that a group that actually only had X% of Fox-believing care-in-the -community cases in it might seem in hindsight like it had rather more, but that's the kind of thing that most people would apply their own pinch of salt to when reading, and in the end, it's not exactly important what the precise proportions were - for an insight into someone's job, it's likely that they'll concentrate on the more memorable people.

        In any case, the author actually seemed to go on to describe people like the sneering 'why don't you get a better job' types that seem more like people who just want to look down on others in order to feel important, not just anti-government nutjobs.

        1. Anonymous Coward
          Anonymous Coward


          "Possibly..." "...fairly accurate reflection..." "...honest attempt at recollection..."

          If one has the same set of discriminations as the author, then calling people crazy and envious makes sense because, well, obviously they are. In that case the author is only reporting the truth and is not slandering or vilifying anyone. However, if you don't have the same set of discriminations, then calling those people crazy and envious is a problem. It sounds a lot like they are crazy and envious because they don't agree with you, leading to an obvious conclusion that you can marginalize their points by undermining their credibility. Standard ploy, been around for years, and still tragically effective.

          The issues remain. Calling someone crazy and envious is not 'possibly' vilification, it is. The author may have been 'fairly accurate' about some facts in his 'reflection', but not all, and the parts where he treated opinion as fact, especially without stating they were opinion, make this slanted. And an 'honest attempt at recollection' doesn't mean the same thing if it is a biased recollection being recounted. Maybe a 'somewhat biased attempt at recollection' or an 'honestly biased attempt at recollection' would be more accurate and easier to defend. Unless, of course, one happened to have the same biases as the author and believed they were beyond reproach. In which case, the slant may be invisible.

          This is not about whether you watch Fox or CNN, politics as sport is not on the table here. The point is the slanting of reporting and not whether it is slanted in a direction you prefer. This is the slippery slope that you can either ride to its logical conclusion of antagonism and subjectivity or oppose, no matter whose team is under attack, and require objective reporting as a matter of course.

          Granted this is a small, insidious, example of a larger issue, but it is telling that it seems hard for many people to see that there is an issue here. If you don't defend the principles it won't matter which side you are on. It will only matter who currently is carrying the biggest stick.

    2. Mike Powers

      Then why all the "FOX NOOZ HURF DURF"

      "It's just an accounting of what happened, no more and no less."

      Really? Then why all the angry gibbering about how anyone with a gripe about the census was a fat-cat Glenn Beck addict? (And how homeless and jobless people were invariably pleasant and understanding and had totally legitimate excuses for everything.)

      1. david wilson

        @Mike Powers

        He didn't say that everyone uncooperative was a Glenn Beck addict, just that one of the subsets seemed to be something like that.

        I guess in earlier years, such people would probably have just been counted as just being independently paranoid. Now they've been identified as a useful market segment, and are getting pandered to and vaguely organised, it probably makes them a bit more memorable.

  11. Anonymous Coward

    As folks say

    The Constitution only mandates a headcount of citizens to apportion representation.

    All the rest is tacked on by idiots, or Congressmen. Not that there's a difference.

    All the stuff about ethnicity, etc? Has NOTHING to do with apportioning representation. It's all about PC.

  12. Gene Cash Silver badge
    IT Angle

    Multiple invasive rounds of questions, over and over

    The major problem was the mentioned multiple rounds of invasive questions. After 3 "census" guys show up at your door, after you've already returned your form, you're going to be a) a little testy at the obvious government waste and idiocy, and b) wondering if they're really census guys, or people out to steal your identity.

    After re-answering all the questions with the first guy, I told the rest to sod off. They gave me the usual "you're interfering with the census" to which I said "no, I'm not, as I've sent in my form. fuck off"

    One guy waited for over an hour hoping for me to answer questions. I simply went about my business and he helplessly followed me around the house, while I ignored him.

    The IT angle is the census was the first use of punched-card data processing equipment.


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