Census debacle

Census debacle

Census night was a debacle.

For the first time, citizens were encouraged to complete their census form online after assurances that the system was secure and robust. Whilst the former claim is yet to be seen, it certainly wasn’t robust. In fact, it had to be shut down by the Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS) because of purported ‘hacking’ attacks.

This conjures up images of foreign powers seeking to gather the sensitive data submitted by Australian citizens as a way of undermining our society. I would suggest that it is far easier for them to gather the same information via social media feeds like Facebook than hacking into the ABS census process.

At the time of writing, the ABS has stated that these were DDoS (Distributed Denial of Service) attacks, which are designed to stop access to a particular website. If this is the case, it is not a particularly difficult process to implement and it has been used many times around the world by cyber activists.

Why would someone do such a thing? Most likely because they can and they enjoy being disruptive.

So I wasn’t surprised the system crashed. Either through DDoS attack or sheer demand intensity, much bigger IT efforts have succumbed to the weight of server demands in both the government and commercial worlds. It just makes me wonder how our government agencies thought we would be any different.

The ABS assured us that the IT infrastructure could cope with up to 1 million users per hour although they were only expecting half that demand. That in itself beggars belief. With an estimated ten million forms to be completed – most of which would be attempted during the peak hours post-dinner (7-10pm) – the demands were always likely to be more than their guidelines.

Couple this with the inability of many, many people to request a paper form via the telephone system and this census process has been a debacle. I only wonder if anyone will actually be held accountable for the failings. Time will tell.

There was also a lot of pre-census concern about the data retention. At first blush I shared those concerns, but then I realised that some of my colleagues were simply attention-seeking in their public refusal to provide their names on the forms.

Personally, it makes little sense to me as to why names were required but it’s not really cause for alarm. As I mentioned earlier, much of the census data could be compiled by publicly available information. Additionally, the data surrounding income, religion, nationality, employment and so forth is already compiled by many government departments.

Yes, we are right to be concerned about privacy; however, in a world where many individuals openly disclose their own sensitive information through so many public forums, the confected outrage of a few camera-chasing politicians rings as hollow as their commitment to the concept of freedom of speech.

It’s no coincidence that those politicians who won’t put their names on their census forms don’t want you to have your say on much more important matters for fear of causing offence.

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