#censusfail – what went wrong, why, and what comes next?

New Policy Forum Pod looks at the Australian Census debacle

Liz Allen
Cassandra Cross
Michelle Price
Martyn Pearce

Government and governance, Science and technology, Arts, culture & society | Australia

12 August 2016

In the new Policy Forum Pod, three experts discuss the concerns around the Australian Census, how the data is used by researchers, and why the census website went offline on its big night.

The 2016 Australian census is shaping up to be the biggest political and policy bungle of the year. In a new Policy Forum Pod, three experts provide analysis of what went wrong. Listen here: http://bit.ly/PFPcensusfail

At 7.30pm, on the night of 9 August, as the government was urging people to login and complete the census online, the website specifically designed to collect data directly from Australia’s 24 million strong population, was taken offline following a series of what is being called denial of service incidents.

These incidents, caused by parties as yet unknown, involved the routing of huge volumes of data through servers in the US to essentially crash the website.

The Prime Minister’s special adviser on cybersecurity, Alastair MacGibbon, likened the incident “to me parking a truck across your driveway to stop vehicles coming in and out”.

The incident has become a source of acute embarrassment for the agency responsible for delivering the census, the Australian Bureau of Statistics, and by extension the Australian Government. It has generated widespread concern, not to mention inconvenience, for pretty much the entire Australian population, and raises serious questions about trust, privacy and the cybersecurity of government agencies.

The government has ordered a review into the debacle with the Prime Minister declaring, “Which heads roll, where and when, will be determined once the review is complete.”

In the new Policy Forum Pod three leading experts discuss what went wrong, why, and the implications going forward.

QUT’s Dr Cassandra Cross, formerly of the Queensland Police Force, and an authority on cybercrime and online fraud, said the hashtag #censusfail, that has dominated the social mediasphere, is a pretty accurate description of the whole debacle.

“I think unfortunately, with this census, with everything that has happened, we have seen a complete loss of trust in the Australian Bureau of Statistics,” Dr Cross says. “I think we’ve also seen a loss of credibility in any data that is generated from this particular census.”

The Australian National University’s Dr Liz Allen, a highly skilled demographer and social researcher, has been at the forefront of the debate surrounding the 2016 Census. Dr Allen has been working hard to underline the importance of the census, and counter some of the misinformation being spread online, including through promoting the hashtag #censusmatters.

“The census is the only means by which we can understand the composition and geographic distribution of the population,” Dr Allen points out.

Dr Allen warns that “by undermining the census we are undermining that potential to innovate. And because we are heading into an unprecedented time, our population is now structurally ageing and will continue to do so and we need to be smarter. We need to be smarter in terms of education, employment, because more taxpayers will be drawing on the tax base than contributing.”

The National Security College’s cyber security expert Michelle Price was involved in the development and delivery of the Government’s Cyber Security strategy.

More on this: #census2016's (slim) silver lining | Michelle Price

Michelle says that if this was indeed a denial of service incident then data was not at risk, explaining that the intent of such an incident is to “make the website virtually explode”.

Michelle argues there “are some basic things that all [government] agencies should be doing to make sure that their cyber security is in good shape” and says this incident is in fact “a great opportunity for all of those agencies to do that before something like #censusfail happens to them.”

“Trust and confidence is something that is very tenuous in cyber space. And those that have suffered from genuine cyber attacks – complex and sophisticated cyber attacks – know all too well that that trust and confidence can absolutely evaporate in a moment,” Michelle says.

“It is going to take a very coordinated effort on behalf of the government to make sure that the community continues to invest its time and its confidence in online services.”

The headache this issue has created isn’t going to go away anytime soon. So tune in as we go behind the scenes and you can read more analysis on this issue at www.policyforum.net

You can catch up with our Policy Forum podcast series via iTunes, Stitcher, and Soundcloud. If you like what you hear, please give us a review on iTunes and help us get the word out.

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