Juha Saarinen is a tech blogger for nzherald.co.nz.

Juha Saarinen: Australia's Census 2016 trainwreck

Censuses are necessary and valuable tools, but the public has to have confidence in them. Screenshot / Juha Saarinen
Censuses are necessary and valuable tools, but the public has to have confidence in them. Screenshot / Juha Saarinen

They're counting people and houses across the Tasman at the moment - well, they're trying to, but it's not going too well thanks to what appears to be a colossal tech bungle.

Yesterday was Census 2016 night, with lots of Australians taking to the web to fill in the forms for it. This is the first time the census is on the web (you can do it via paper forms too) and if don't do it, there's a A$180 fine handed out.

Despite assurances by the Australian Bureau of Statistics that tests had been done, capacity had been provisioned and all would be well, the Census application on its designated website died almost immediately as people started to use it.

People wanting to complete the Census were enraged and let fly at statisticians as not just the Census site, but the main ABS one fell over too.

Why? Well, ABS has so far said the Census site suffered four denial of service attacks.

These are aimed at overwhelming sites by flooding them with data and requests, so as to stop them from working. After the last one, they decided to switch things off to keep the two million already filed forms safe on their servers.

Foreign hackers are being blamed for the attacks, but ABS insists Australians' data is safe.

Except it might not be, as the ABS told Australian media that there was a breach in which somebody got through a gap via an unknown third party. This could just mean that there was a misconfiguration and miscreants were able to launch denial of service attacks via a third party rather than Census or other data being taken.

Unfortunately for ABS, there doesn't appear to have been any large data flooding attacks directed at the Australian networks yesterday. Also, ABS said the attackers were foreign but the Australian Signals Directorate said it was difficult to source the attack.

The latest is that a network traffic router at Telstra failed, but ABS still insists there was a denial of service attack too.

As a result of the confusion and contradictory finger pointing, ABS has burnt through just about all of credibility with the public currently.

Censuses are necessary and valuable tools for governments, but the public has to have confidence in them.

Even though ABS said no data was accessed, Australia's privacy commissioner who at first declared himself satisfied with the Census site security has launched a probe to see if any information was taken.

Absolutely nobody in Australia believes ABS protestations that it was dastardly hackers that took out the sites, rather than a comedy of errors and general ineptitude.

Denial of service attacks happen, but in this case, it seems just a little too convenient as an excuse, especially since there's scant evidence one let alone four that were big enough to take out a site hosted on IBM's allegedly robust Softlayer network infrastructure actually took place.

ABS was already in the dog box with Australians because this year, the government statisticians wanted the full name of people for the Census. This put lots of people's backs up, as nobody thinks that data will be safe as the vast amount of hacks over the last few years has shown.

Censuses are necessary and valuable tools for governments, but the public has to have confidence in them. Australia's Census 2016 will become a case study in how not to do them and ABS has to shoulder the blame for that.

- NZ Herald

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Juha Saarinen is a tech blogger for nzherald.co.nz.

Juha Saarinen is a technology journalist and writer living in Auckland. Apart from contributing to the New Zealand Herald over the years, he has written for the Guardian, Wired, PC World, Computerworld and ITnews Australia, covering networking, hardware, software, enterprise IT as well as the business and social aspects of computing. A firm believer in the principle that trying stuff out makes you understand things better, he spends way too much time wondering why things just don’t work.

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