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Census 2016: digital revolution hits a speedbump

Wednesday, 31 Aug 2016

This article was originally published in The Australian on August 11, 2016 by Supratim Adhikari. It can be found by clicking here

Problems with the census have ­severely dented the prospect of governments moving toward other online measures such as electronic voting.

This year’s census was the first move by Canberra to make digital a priority with the Australian ­Bureau of Statistics urging the public to submit information through online channels.

But the debacle has left Australians frustrated and leading IT industry bodies worried about the prospects of future digital endeavours ranging from federal polls to passport applications.

Australian Computer Society president Anthony Wong said a forensic investigation into what went wrong was imperative.

“This includes close scrutiny of the arrangements for testing and securing the census servers,” Mr Wong said.

The lead-up to the census was plagued by objections from privacy advocates. The subsequent revelation by the ABS of denial of service attacks as the main culprit for the shutdown on Tuesday night has further inflamed public anxieties over data security for confidential measures.

Mr Wong said it was time for a more serious conversation about the federal government’s ability to improve its cyber security.

“In five years’ time there will be another census and as a nation, there will be an expectation that the circumstances of yesterday will not be repeated,” he said. “Serious investment into developing Australia’s data security capabilities and digital technologies is now essential, alongside leadership and collaboration between the government, business and industry.”

Australian Information Industry Association chief executive Rob Fitzpatrick said the breakdowns should not deter progress on digitisation of government

“It is unfortunate that last night’s census was the subject of a massive denial of service attack, which effectively sabotaged the census,” Mr Fitzpatrick said.

He was hopeful the ABS and the federal government will be able to learn from its mistake.

“The most successful and innovative businesses learn from their setbacks and improve in future releases, we should expect the same from our government,” he said.

“Rather than calls to revert to the old way of doing something, such as going back to paper, we should be supporting our government to take stock, learn, make improvements, plug gaps, and do it better next time.”

However, Mr Fitzpatrick’s optimism was not shared by the industry, with many pointing to systemic internal weaknesses that are preventing other agencies from embarking on digital transformation.

Huxxer Corporation founder Anthony Harrowell said the ­attacks may have forced the ABS to shut down the internet site, but there were signs that the ABS’s own technology may have also been deficient. “They may have spent a lot of money on load testing but not necessarily on load ­balancing, you can test the amount of traffic coming through but ­trying to simulate how your site will deal with millions of people logging on at the same time is a whole different thing,” Mr ­Harrowell said.

“The planning side of this ­entire exercise needs to be looked at here, who thought it was a good idea to run one website for something of this size.”