Discount Census debacle cost taxpayers hundreds of millions of dollars

Australia’s Census debacle may have cost taxpayers in excess of $350 million, parliamentary documents reveal, with reports indicating the man in charge of the debacle earns close to three quarters of a million dollars.

 

Australian Bureau of Statistics chief David Kalisch told a senate estimates hearing in October that his organisation was looking forward to delivering the 2016 Census for $100 million less than the 2011 survey.

The previous Census cost taxpayers about $450m, he said.

MP Michael McCormack (left) and Australian Statistician David Kalisch. Photo: AAP

Mr Kalisch also told senators that $250 million had been injected into the Australian Bureau of Statistics for computer systems upgrades, with some of that money feeding into the launch of the first dedicated eCensus.

The ABS most recent annual report suggest taxpayers spend about $705,000 a year to employ Mr Kalisch, about $150,000 per year more than the Prime Minister receives.


The hack attack that wasn’t

Earlier The federal government backed away earlier claims by the ABS that the Census website was shut down by hackers, suggesting instead it was not "attacked or hacked" but shut down intentionally to safeguard users' data.

“This was not an attack, nor was it a hack but rather, it was an attempt to frustrate the collection of Australian Bureau of Statistics census data," said Michael McCormack, the minister charged with overseeing the 2016 Census.

Census site crashed several times throughout Tuesday night, the work of foreign hackers. Source: ABS

The statement backed away from earlier comments from ABS chief statistician David Kalisch the website came under a "malicious attack" from foreign hackers.

There were 2.33 million online forms submitted before the series of distributed denial of service (DDoS) assaults hit on Tuesday night, the strongest coming at 7.33pm.

Small Business Minister Michael McCormack walked back earlier comments from the ABS about the Census website being 'hacked'. Source: AAP

The Australian Bureau of Statistics shut down the website after the outage and the government have stressed the details of those submissions have been "safely stored".

"No census data was compromised and no data was lost," Mr McCormack said, adding the ABS was able to take adequate measures to protect its data.

The prime minister's cyber security adviser Alastair MacGibbon described a DDoS as akin to "parking a truck across a driveway".

A "distributed denial of service" attack, or DDoS, occurs when a website is swamped by hundreds of thousands of simultaneous requests, causing the it to collapse under the strain.

A DDoS attack does not necessarily mean data or personal information was compromised or internal servers breached.

However, as the ABS stated on Twitter, the website was shut down as a "precaution" to prevent a breach and to ensure its data was not compromised during the DDoS attacks.

"After the fourth attack, just after 7:30pm, the ABS took the precaution of closing down the system to ensure the integrity of the data," the ABS said on Twitter.

'It was an attack': ABS chief statistician David Kalisch. Source: ABC

"Steps have been taken during the night to remedy these issues, and we can reassure Australians that their data are secure at the ABS."

A series of issues led administrators to shut the site, including problems with geo-blocking, a hardware router failure and a "performance monitoring situation", Mr Kalisch said.

The website remained offline at the time of the press conference.


Privacy Commission investigating 'attack'

The claims come hours after Australian Privacy Commissioner, Timothy Pilgrim, released a statement saying the census website was shut down amid "attacks" from foreign hackers.

"Based on these reports I am commencing an investigation of the Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS) in regards to these cyber attacks, under the Australian Privacy Act 1988," the statement read.

"My first priority is to ensure that no personal information has been compromised as a result of these attacks.

"ABS have confirmed that a decision was taken last night to shut down the website in order to protect personal data."

ABS chief statistician David Kalisch told ABC radio early Wednesday morning he was certain the Census website had come under attack from a foreign entity.

"The online census form was subject to four denial of service (DDoS) attacks yesterday," Mr Kalisch said.

"The first three caused minor disruption, but more than two million forms were successfully submitted and safely stored."

"It was an attack, and we believe from overseas" he added. "It was quite clear it was malicious."

Mr Kalisch said the Australian Signals Directorate was investigating the hack but "they did note that it was very difficult to source the attack".

The chief statistician told ABC Radio he believed the attack was a deliberate attempt at sabotage, adding steps were taken throughout the night "to remedy these issues and I can certainly reassure Australians that the data they provided is safe".


'Census fail' obscures national snapshot

In a statement late Tuesday night, ABS confirmed they could not restore the site and would remain down until Wednesday morning at the earliest.

"The ABS and Census website are unavailable. The service won’t be restored tonight," a spokesperson said.

"We will update you (Wednesday morning). We apologise for the inconvenience."

The failure of the site set-up to take a national snapshot has led Labor to call on Assistant Treasurer Michael McCormack, charged with running the Census, to resign.

A statement released by the senator amid the outage said Australians "will not be fined for not submitting their Census form last night".

I am informed by the ABS that a thorough process will be undertaken to ensure all households are counted as part of the Census," Mr McCormack said.

The crash came despite the ABS spending more than $400,000 on a number of contracts to test-run the site at more than 150 per cent of its required capacity, Lifehacker reports.

One person happy to lodge his Census was Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull who tweeted it was "v easy to do".

Australians were locked out of the site early on Census night, and with fears of $180 fines, took to social media to vent their frustration.

The ABS says no fines will be issued and there's still time to complete the national survey.

"There will be no fines for completing the Census after August 9. There’s still plenty of time to complete the Census," a spokesperson said.

Regardless, thousands of Australians were frustrated they wasted hours completing the form, only for the data failing to save.

"In the least surprising tech news of the year, we can neither submit nor save our #census2016 form," Stuart Condie posted on Twitter.

"I think the ABS can lay claim to @Coles slogan... down, down, census is down," another Tweet said.

"I'll be fining the government $180 for every time the site has failed to load after filling out the entire thing," one user said online.

Australians have until September 23 to get the Census completed before facing a fine.

When survey-goers initially contacted Census Australia about the website issues, they were told to head to the help line in a bid to finish their survey.

A spokesperson claimed the site was working "smoothly as expected" and that issues completing the form were due to browser issues.

A Facebook post by Census Australia during the website outage.

Help lines were pushed to the limit, with those needing assistance unable to get through or told to ring back tomorrow.

"The ABS and Census websites are currently experiencing an outage. We're working to restore the service," a Census Australia spokesperson later said after the earlier post was removed.


Some saw this coming

The Census has been a talking point for weeks, with some Senators refusing to put their names to their answers in a stand against privacy concerns.

"It seems the ABS has failed to make a compelling case why names must be provided, and stored for four years," Senator Nick Xenophon said.

On Tuesday morning, the ABS maintained the system would be able to handle the expected traffic of 15 million people.

An ABS spokesperson said the site had been set up to handle "double" the number of submissions expected.

"There is plenty of reserve capacity to cope if more than 80 per cent of Australians choose to complete the census online," the spokesperson said.

But within a matter of hours, the system crashed spectacularly with all users locked out.

So far one million people have already completed the Census, with millions more to come.

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