Politics

#CensusFail signals major challenges ahead

The rapid growth of digital trends worldwide, sees the Australian Government scrambling to modernise their services and online infrastructure, in an effort to contend as trendy players in the global ‘digital disruption’. In 2015, then Communications Minister Malcolm Turnbull, a self-proclaimed advocate of digital technology, established a dedicated ‘Digital Transformation Office’ in hopes of better managing the digitization of key Government services and platforms, such as myGov. As traction for digitisaton grows, it catches the eye of major players in the field, in particular, the Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS).

Irrespective of its historical policy and social significance, the 2016 Census was marred with controversy, weeks out from ‘D(DOS)-Day’ itself. Privacy advocates were awash with critique surrounding news over new provisions, which would link Census respondent’s names to their otherwise non-identifiable data for the first time. Further concerns arise, with the potential for the ABS to perform long-term longitudinal analysis to track individual and family changes across decades.

Adding insult to injury were concerns surrounding the accuracy of the number of gender-diverse Australians in this year’s census. People who don’t identify as male or female were required to request an alternative access code, in order to accurately represent themselves through a usually hidden ‘Other’ option for their sex.

As if the now ubiquitous hashtag could become even more clustered, we can take a look at the Census night itself, where the Twitterazi was out in full force.

Census 2016. Image: David Pope
Census 2016. Image: David Pope

It’s still unclear what the exact cause of Tuesday night’s outages was. The ABS is officially claiming that four Distributed Denial of Service (DDOS) attacks of varying severity were the cause. Swinburne University’s Philip Branch, an Associate Professor and Senior Lecturer in IT Networking and Communications, noted that the lure of a “high profile and controversial” online survey made the likelihood of a DDOS attack “entirely predictable”. Speaking to 3SSR Media, Professor Branch clarified that the attack “wasn’t hacking”, and that a DDOS attack itself didn’t target existing data stored by the Census system.

Despite the ABS’ adamant claims, there have been speculations over the legitimacy of these DDOS attacks by leading cyber technology experts. What could be problematic for the ABS, is if they collectively failed to ensure adequate load testing of the Census form or if the projected bandwidth was not capable to withhold such strenuous and concentrated technological demand across Australia.

In the weeks leading up to August 9th, the ABS boasted that the online Census had the capacity to process 1,000,000 forms per hour – “twice the capacity” of submissions they expected. Further, the branding “Census Night”, implied that the Census should be completed in the evening on Tuesday night. Asking 6.5 million households to complete a web-form only designed to manage 500,000 submissions per hour in one night is a recipe set for disaster. Mathematically, it just doesn’t add up.

The ABS has much to answer for, and not just for the discrepancies in their public messaging. At 8:38pm AEST on Tuesday night, the official @ABSCensus account tweeted that the Census “was currently experiencing an outage”. Later that evening, at 10:59pm, the ABS elaborated further saying “ABS & Census website are unavailable…[and] won’t be restored tonight”. Only at 7:33am on Wednesday morning did they clarify the reasons behind the outage:

By all extents, it was a PR disaster.

If the ABS intentionally shut down the survey, did they mislead the public by claiming it was an “outage”? Is it possible that their infrastructure simply couldn’t handle the capacity of submissions? Was this possibly a ploy to avoid public concern over data quality and security issues? Ultimately, we’ll never truly know – but I’d advocate for giving the ABS the benefit of the doubt. The ABS released a detailed statement on Wednesday, which is well worth a read.

Despite all the commotion, it’s prudent to reflect on the primary reason #CensusFail started trending in the lead-up to Tuesday: privacy. With more than four cross-bench Senators vowing to risk financial consequence, rather than risk privacy by marking their names on the Census, privacy is still at the core as the main issue. Professor Branch says that the Census is “yet another piece of information the Government has about us”, and whilst many people voluntarily surrender their privacy to Facebook and other social media sites, it simply can’t compare to the Census, whose compulsion mandates all Australians sacrifice privacy. The juxtaposition with a mostly-online Census and the storage of names for multiple years has clearly created angst amongst Australians.

Design and development for the ‘eCensus Solution 2016’ was contracted to IBM, a behemoth in large scale technological infrastructure solutions for a mere $9.6 million. Load testing, performed by Revolution IT Pty Ltd, set taxpayers back a further $325,000. Clearly, there were issues somewhere along the food chain.

As the Prime Minister and Opposition Leader continue to ponder about the digitisation of crucial Government services, one naturally looks to their renewed calls for electronic voting. The duo collectively branded this year’s Federal election – the result of which took two weeks to finalise – as ‘unacceptable’. Writing for The Guardian, Ben Raue articulated a more thorough down-play of electronic voting, however the botched online Census this year should spark fears among Australians whenever debate on this intensifies.

When questioned about the viability of electronic or online voting, Professor Branch immediately branded this as a “really bad idea”, and strongly advocated for our traditional secret, paper ballot elections as they “leave a physical paper trail, permanently available on record”. Democracy is a powerful tool and one that shouldn’t be abused, controlled or harmed. Electronic voting in any form opens significant vulnerabilities for bodies such as the Australian Electoral Commission, the likes of which would struggle to rebuild electorate trust and confidence from a similar situation that occurred to the Census.

Concluding our phone interview, Professor Branch encapsulated the situation:

“It’s near impossible to test systems like the Census or electronic voting to the grandeur proportions necessary until the day itself, often when it’s too late”.

Statistical analyses from the Census and our Democracy are too precious to fool around with. Governments must continually question what financial and political price they’re willing to pay for failed Information Technology projects at the heart of the Australian social and political landscape.

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