Tune in, log on, drop out: The Great Census Joke of 2016

Sometimes, all it takes is a one-word prompt to get us writing.

Today’s Daily Post writing prompt: JOKE

IT IS a fine late-winter morning with a clear blue sky here in Sydney and although there may be blue skies over our national capital down south in Canberra, it’s not such a fine morning for the Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS) and assorted federal politicians.

And therein lies the ‘joke’, the theme of this Daily Post assignment. The joke is on the above-mentioned parties and it came about when Australians went online last night to fill out the national census form. The joke takes the form of inept and inadequate ABS preparation for the online census and the botched response to what went wrong.

The first online census? What could possibly go wrong?

The census is a place-based, not an individual-based collection of data, a ‘snapshot of the nation on one particular evening’, as the ABS likes to put it.

But what went wrong is this. Encouraged by ABS exhortations to fill out the online form when people came home from work or wherever last night, the nation’s citizens did just that. They all went online as the ABS had asked — and crashed the system in what was an inadvertent DDOS attack — a Distributed Denial of Service, a common means of temporarily shutting down websites by making thousands of computers attempt to log on all at once.


Beware: Nefarious agents at work

But were they alone? Australians woke this morning to find the ABS and its government supporters running for cover and playing the tired old blame game as to whose fault it was. Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull reassured Australians their data is safe. Not everyone believes him. Just six hours prior to my writing this piece, comes this news frm the Australian Briadcasting Commission:

“Census: Possible hack of private information cannot be ruled out, experts say… Experts say a data breach cannot be ruled out after four denial of service (DOS) attacks that led to the shutting down of the census website last night”.

Turnbull is blaming cyber attacks for the government’s systems crash , reportedly a series of four that occurred overnight. And the culprit source? The USA.

Yes, that’s where the guilty servers are said to have been located. But as anyone with a very basic understanding of computer security knows, attacks are routed through multiple servers worldwide and those in the US might have been merely the last in the chain.

“So it was bloody foreigners! What a great excuse”.
“No, no…it wasn’t the server load…it was just a DoS…you know, hackers. Ah, that’s OK then”

ABS — the national house of confusion

According to SBS news this morning: “The Australian Bureau of Statistics took down the census website in ‘an abundance of caution’ on Tuesday night, Mr Turnbull told reporters in Sydney.

“The site would be restored as soon as intelligence agency Australian Signals Directorate and the ABS and its contractor IBM were satisfied it was safe to do so, he said.

“The site has not been hacked, it has not been interfered with, their data is safe.”


Labor, the federal opposition party, had called on Michael McCormack, the federal minister responsible for Tuesday night’s botched census, to resign.

McCormack issued a statement saying : “The Australian Bureau of Statistics is now working to restore its online census facility after it was voluntarily shut down following a series of distributed denial of service, or DDoS, attacks.

“This was not an attack, nor was it a hack but rather, it was an attempt to frustrate the collection of Bureau of Statistics census data,” Mr McCormack stressed.”

Well, that’s exactly what DDoS attacks aim to do — deny service. But, which was it McCormick? You say it was an attack then you say it was not an attack. No wonder politicians are the butt of the nation’s jokes.

SBS went on to report that the census website was shut down after being attacked by foreign hackers.

“‘It was an attack,'” ABS chief statistician David Kalisch told ABC radio on Wednesday. It was quite clear it was malicious.”

So, I jocularly, or maybe not-so-jocularly, ask again: was it a deliberate DDoS attack or was it an inadvertent DDOS attack caused by millions of Australians logging on and pressing ‘send’ on the census form, as they were requested to do last night by the ABS?

…he may well need a bath and lie down, after first wiping off the copious amounts of egg on his face

Now, just a few minutes ago, the facebook of itwire.com reports on their own investigation into the government’s debacle: “While the head of the Australian Bureau of Statistics David Kalisch is claiming that hackers forced the closure of the organisation’s website on census night, there is no evidence to show that any such attack occurred. The website digitalattackmap.com tracks events of this nature but as security pro Matthew Hackling posted last night, the site detected no unusual activity in Australia at all.

“Hackling commented in a tweet: ‘Hmmm. Nothing unusual DDoS wise for Australia and yesterday #censusfail.’

“The North American Network Operators Group is normally aware of big DDoS attacks but there is no mention of any attack on their regular mailing list either.

“Given the ABS’ boast that the site could handle a million form submissions every hour, it would have taken an attack of some magnitude to bring operations to a halt.

“But the mainstream media appears to have swallowed the ABS spin hook, line and sinker, with the ABC’s Caitlyn Gribbin spouting off on News 24 that foreign hackers had been responsible.

“Kalisch has been quoted as saying that the Australian Signals Directorate has been asked to track the source of the attack. He might as well start looking for a unicorn. But right now, he may well need a bath and lie down, after first wiping off the copious amounts of egg on his face”.

The mystery… sorry… the nationwide joke deepens, as the cliche goes.


“News dot com dot au have touched on this, suggesting there is no evidence of a DDoS attack. This Census is a total debacle. Heads should roll. The government should be ashamed of itself. I guess that’s the end of any suggestion of eVoting in 2019???”

Linked through #censusfail, social media erupted in dismay but mainly in derision as news of the census shutdown spread cross the nation last night, and today Australians are finding great glee in sending up our obviously-confused politicians, our favourite Australian passtime anytime, and the ABS.


Hello Canberra? Clarification not blame needed

Fiasco is too kind a work to describe #censusfail. It needs stronger language.

Understanding will change quickly as this is still an unfolding debacle. We can expect to see pollies (politicians, for those not familiar with Australian English) pointing their fingers are all but themselves, ABS bureaucrats running for cover like large rodents and more online sport as Australians get deeper into our national fun of ridiculing our pollies.

@ABSCensus you owe a lot of people an apology for telling them to check their PC when you weren’t checking yours

Hey ABS!
Have you tried turning it off and back on again?#censusfail#ITcrowd
8:14 PM – 9 Aug 2016

Here is the clarification we need:

  • did the ABS census website crash because of nefarious foreigners attacking the system through a DDoS attack?
  • did it crash because millions of Australians did exactly what the ABS urged them to do and tune in, log on and drop out?
  • was the crash due to a combination of both these things?
  • why had ABS not prepared its IT system to handle the surge in census postings (an earlier ABS statement said they had designed their IT system to handle one million postings but expected only half that; really? that’s planning? I and a great many others call it gross underestimation and public service incompetence, to use some kind terms)
  • why had the ABS not planned for the possibility of a deliberate DDOS attack, given the controversy over privacy in this year’s census where the ABS wants to retain for several years names linked to the information they provide; the level of controversy over privacy should have rung some bells in the dense heads down there in Canberra that a DDOS attack or hack was a definite possibility.

So, that’s this morning’s joke. It’s a joke on a national scale, something only government can do well.

As we enjoy this morning’s mild temperatures and blue skies, Australians are sitting back and looking forward to the next few days of political street theatre from the mob down there in distant Canberra.


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