26 September 2016
by Peter Martin

Blame all around as the Bureau of Statistics deflects criticism of Census 2016

A screen grab from the census video.

The Australian Bureau of Statistics has blamed the media for the failure of its census hotline and blamed an overseas denial-of-service attack for the failure of its census website.

In a strongly worded submission to a Senate inquiry, the Bureau also attempts to deflect blame for the overwhelming of its website on to its contractor, IBM.

The submission says from early on, both its call centre and its automated paper-form request service received far more calls than expected, forcing it to implement a "call blocking" where calls were answered and callers asked to call back later.

It blames "unexpected and unprompted media and social media focus on potential of census fines", for which it hadn't planned because its usual strategy is not to mention fines before the census night. Also Australia Post delivered letters informing people of the hotline more quickly than it expected and its census advertising campaign was more effective than it expected.

In media reporting about its decision to retain names submitted with the census to enable linking to other datasets, the ABS was "rarely approached for its perspective". It met with the Australian Privacy Foundation to explain its position but the Privacy Foundation "continued to reflect their views irrespective of ABS explanations".

Before the denial-of-service attacks, which caused it to shut down the website on census night, its contractor, IBM, had provided "reasonable assurances" that adequate protections were in place.

"At no time was the ABS offered or advised of additional protections that could be put into place. Additionally, no suggestion was made to the ABS that the protections that were planned were inadequate," the submission says.

After the first denial-of-service attack at 10.10am on census day, the ABS asked IBM to invoke "Island Australia", where the website was cut off from other countries.

By the fourth, at 7.28pm, the ABS and IBM observed "an unusual spike in outbound traffic". The ABS instructed IBM to prevent the Australian public from commencing new census forms to ensure the census data was protected.

It was unable to shut down web advertising asking people to file online or automated Twitter responses telling people to keep trying for some time.

As of September 20, 94.4 per cent of households had completed their census return, in line with expectations. Fifty-nine per cent had completed their forms online, less than expected.

By September 20, 6743 people had refused. During the previous, 2011, census 13,194 people refused.