When the Census website crashed and was taken offline on August 9, the ABS was quick to blame overseas hackers. And in its defence, blaming foreigners has worked pretty well for authorities in this country on pretty much every other issue up till now.
In fact, when the #NauruFiles scandal broke the next day, with fresh evidence of systemic abuse of asylum seekers in the Australian-run prison camp, I'm surprised Peter Dutton didn't respond: “Honestly, these people will do anything to get into this country, if they aren't setting themselves on fire they are all logging on to the ABS site at the same time in a bid to stop us developing accurate information on the number of Jedi knights in Australia.
“Well we declare that will decide who fills out this Census and the circumstances in which they fill it out. Well, us and the US corporation we contracted the site out to for $10 million, technical issues notwithstanding.”
It has to be said the “hack” line does make a lot of sense if it turns out they had also hacked the brains of ABS and government representatives, whose bizarre contradictory responses leaves this whole Census scenario looking like a bunch of drunk people with their underpants over their heads trying to build a functioning spaceship with some plastic spoons.
Of course, someone might say that the #CensusFail was a pretty predictable outcome, considering the funding cuts to the ABS, but that doesn't take away from the sheer joy of watching each sector turn on the other.
Malcolm Turnbull, for one, was very angry in the aftermath, and who could blame him? Who could blame a man who has been part of a government that stripped funds from the ABS, sabotaged the NBN and pushed a ceaseless ideology of privatisation?
IBM, granted a $10 million contract to create and run the website, was equally clear it was not its fault. On the claim it was a “denial of service” attack, it simply said it was never asked to develop a plan to deal with such a security threat.
And why would it? It was only a project in which a major controversy was over the plans to keep names linked to data for years for the first time ever, with huge concerns raised over the security of that data. Why would the company paid millions in taxpayers' money bother with thinking about how to protect that data?
IBM is a very busy multinational, what with all the effort involved in minimising its tax bill in Australia. A December itnews article reported the company paid well below the 30% tax rate. The article said: “IBM's tax bill came in at a tiny $5.8 million from its taxable income of $60 million, and total earnings of $4 billion.”
There is a lot of debate as to whether or not there was a hack. The ABS and government say there was and IT experts try not to laugh.
You'd feel more sympathetic to the authorities using the “it was hackers” line if we also got to use it when dealing with them, and say things like: “No, I really wasn't speeding officer, it is just my accelerator pedal was hacked by Russians”.
Of course, it could be hackers. But seeing as a denial of service attack is basically caused by creating more attempts to access a site than the site's servers can cope with, it is also possible it just means trying to get millions of households to log on to the same site on the same night was just a fucking stupid idea.
At least, without the actual resources to ensure the site could cope, as opposed to just throwing half a million bucks at a private company to get them to tell you it'll work.
Pretty much all elements in the controversy, from the contracting out to the plan to keep private data, seem connected to a cost cutting drive. This is in a context where $68 million was cut from the ABS in the 2014 budget, on top of a $10 million cut the previous year under Labor.
For instance, the ABS's first plan for the 2016 Census was just to scrap it altogether, in a bid to move, “from five-yearly to 10-yearly, to save $200 million” Peter Martin said in an August 10 SMH piece.
Martin wrote: “Told by the government that would require legislation that would be unlikely to get through the Senate, it decided to get extra value by using the names collected with the census to create permanent linkage keys.
“Previously destroyed after processing, the names would be kept indefinitely in a separate file and used to link the answers to census questions to the answers to other ABS surveys and data collected from organisations such as the Pharmaceutical Benefits Scheme and the Australian Tax Office.
“If it could find out whether Australians or certain ethnic backgrounds or family circumstances were more likely to claim certain tax deductions or be prescribed certain medicines it could sell the results.”
Yes, the whole fucking thing was cooked up to deal with a severe funding shortage by a government that somehow found more than $1 billion in the 2014/15 financial year to spend running its abusive offshore prison camps.