COVER STORY Online census fiasco a cautionary tale
by Peter Westmore
News Weekly, August 27, 2016
The chaos following repeated denial-of-service attacks on the Federal Government’s online census has important messages for Australian governments that have been toying with the idea of electronic voting.
As a result of the attacks, the Australian Bureau of Statistics’ website, which was supposed to handle a million census returns per hour, had to be shut down, and was offline for nearly two days. Although the census was supposed to be held on Tuesday, August 9, a week later the bureau reported that only 40 per cent of people had completed the census – either online or in print.
In contrast with earlier censuses, where the return rate was nearly 100 per cent, there are real dangers that the census will not secure the level of return needed to validate the data collected. If this eventuates, the $400 million spent on the census – of which $10 million was paid to IBM to prevent hacking and other attacks – could be wasted.
This is the first time that the ABS has tried to run the census online. It clearly miscalculated the deep apprehension that many feel about filling in personal information online.
To get a hard copy, people had to ring up, quote a code, and order the form before the census took place. Perhaps not surprisingly, the bureau’s phone line was clogged, and many people complained of failing to connect to the ABS despite repeated attempts.
After the government’s handwringing, there will be a number of inquiries into the failure of the census that may cast light on the exact reasons for the meltdown.
But the deeper question which needs to be asked – and probably won’t be – relates to the growing mistrust of governments’ use of personal information. This applies particularly to supplying personal and confidential information in the census, but also to voting in local government, state and federal elections, referenda and plebiscites.
Despite the almost universal adoption of e-commerce by business, censuses, referenda and elections are different.
The Australian Electoral Commission was required to change its procedures after the 2013 election, when about 1,370 ballot papers were lost during the count in Western Australia. The security of ballot papers was put in doubt and the incident led to a fresh Senate election for the whole state.
The impetus to switch to electronic voting accelerated following the delays in manual counting of the 2016 federal election. The House of Representatives count took almost two weeks to complete, and the Senate count took twice as long.
These delays were the result of the closeness of the vote, the increased number of pre-poll and absentee votes, the complexity of the Senate voting system (particularly since changes that the government introduced early in 2016 in an attempt to squeeze out the minor parties), and the more detailed recording of ballot papers.
After this, the ABS clearly believed that an online census would eliminate these problems. How wrong they were!
Even before census night, there had been many complaints about the fact that the bureau was going to keep personal data (names and addresses) of people who completed the census for up to four years, compared with 18 months in previous censuses.
The bureau’s claims that personal information was secure and could not be disclosed to third parties are unconvincing, particularly in the light of the Snowdon scandal, Wikileaks, and the recent leaking of apparently secure emails from Hillary Clinton’s account from her time as U.S. Secretary of State.
There was a time when people would accept government assurances of confidentiality, but that time has passed. Moreover, the action of the ABS in shutting down its website because it feared it was being hacked seemed to confirm the worst.
Where does all this leave us? Electronic voting has been introduced in some other countries, so we should not necessarily reject it out of hand. It was even used in Australia during the last NSW state election, when 200,000 people – mainly people with disabilities or living in remote areas – used the iVote system online, to supplement the existing system where people went to a polling centre to vote. There was bipartisan support for it, and there were no complaints about it at the time.
However, the failure of an online election conducted like the census could be catastrophic.
The hard fact is that despite numerous excuses from the Bureau of Statistics and the Minister responsible, and ominous threats from the Prime Minister that “heads will roll”, there have been no persuasive official explanations for its failure: perhaps they still don’t know.
Until the causes of the census fiasco have been identified and publicly acknowledged, and solutions to these problems publicly debated and accepted, any plans to extend online elections, plebiscites or referenda must be abandoned.
Peter Westmore is national president of the National Civic Council.