Australia’s Chief Statistician David Kalisch
For those that took Crikey’s advice last week and avoided filling out the census online, last night was a non-event. The growing problems with the census site, the denials that anything was wrong by Australian Bureau of Statistics, the site going down and taking the main abs.gov.au site along with it, the ABS finally admitting that things had gone haywire, even as its Twitter account kept spewing out messages at individual users demanding they log in to fill out the form, hours after it all went down — all would have passed unnoticed. For millions of Australians, however, the night was an exercise in frustration, fury or bemusement. This morning, in the time-honoured internet tradition, the ABS is blaming malicious foreign actors for bringing down its site.
Whether that’s true or not — the ABS has produced no evidence it’s true; indeed, independent evidence suggests nothing unusual going on last night in Australia — it caps off what has been a comprehensively bungled 2016 census. The ABS insisted it was ready for last night and spoke in the boldest terms. ABS head David Kalisch told the ABC the ABS had “built in enough capacity for people to do the census on the night and really have double the capacity of the number of people we expect to do it on Tuesday night”. Kalisch was, he said in a remarkably trite op-ed for Fairfax, “excited to sit down with my family on August 9 to record our characteristics”. His offsider Chris Libreri was downright cocky. “We have load tested it at 150 per cent of the number of people we think are going to be on it on Tuesday for eight hours straight and it didn’t look like flinching,” he told news.com.au. “We wouldn’t do it unless we were able to safely do it, we have evolved it and we are confident.”
As it turned out, it was more like evolving into an evolutionary dead end, and Kalisch was — presumably — not sitting down with his family.
And the ABS of course had been insistent that there was no risk to anyone’s personal information. “There are extremely robust safeguards in place to protect the privacy and confidentiality of the information collected,” Kalisch insisted, despite the ABS’s recent history of data breaches and criticism by the ANAO of its security. But the worst offender on that front was the Prime Minister, who told Australians “the security of their personal details is absolute”.
As Turnbull, who has been known to use encrypted and ephemeral apps to plan leadership coups, should know, declaring that IT security is “absolute” can never be justified — the only way to guarantee the “absolute” security of information is not to store it in the first place. Moreover, declaring the security of the census “absolute” went even further than Kalisch and Libreri in effectively painting a bright red target on the ABS’ systems for malicious internet actors looking for a challenge. If you’re willing to suspend your critical faculties and believe the ABS that it was attacked, that’s exactly what has happened. Indeed, it was eminently predictable — making last night’s failure all the worse. Indeed, the government’s cybersecurity adviser Alistair MacGibbon made exactly this point this morning — talking about security tends to goad hackers to show they can breach it.
Turnbull’s foolish terminology was of a piece with the government’s overall handling of the issue as privacy concerns erupted into an open campaign of civil disobedience led by privacy experts and senators of multiple parties. Labor has persistently and cynically tried to blame the government for poor communication about the change of the 2016 census to a lifelong surveillance program — while piously urging Australians to fill it out the census. Much of the damage to the ABS’ budget and staff levels was inflicted by Labor when it was in government, giving it some responsibility for whatever resourcing issues have contributed to this debacle. And the ABS has been operating with a relatively free hand, partly because it is generally left to get on with the census without political oversight, and partly because the government has been in caretaker mode for much of recent months with an eight-week election campaign and an uncertain election outcome.
But as the privacy revolt erupted, the government’s distance from events began to look problematic, particularly given the ABS’ tendency to dismiss all privacy concerns and simply threaten people with fines. It didn’t help that responsibility for the census defaulted down to junior Nationals Minister Michael McCormack, after the Small Business portfolio had been booted out of cabinet — it was McCormack who last week blithely compared the census to Facebook .
McCormack’s effort at damage control this morning — flanked by a palpably anxious Kalisch and MacGibbon, who was the only one of the three who knew what he was talking about — merely exacerbated the situation, as the minister got into a semantic debate about whether the ABS had been (as the ABS, including Kalisch right next to him, said) “attacked” and revealed that the ABS had kept him in the dark for 40 minutes after they’d pulled the plug on the system last night, and Kalisch acknowledged he had yesterday said everything was fine despite knowing there were significant threats to the ABS. One of the ABS’ response to those threats had been to shut down all traffic from outside Australia, meaning the large number of Australians households (around 20% at last count) who use VPNs to protect themselves would have been unable to fill out the census online.
For a government that now routinely faces charges of incompetence, dithering and cluelessness, the ABS’ census efforts have dramatically reinforced such perceptions. But much of the fault lies with the government itself. It augurs very poorly for the coming three years — if we make it that far.