Government answers #CensusFail recommendations


The Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS) will be more closely involved in making the 2021 eCensus bulletproof before it is conducted, which will involve cyber security experts from the Australian Signals Directorate independently assessing ICT security and risk, the federal government has pledged. 

The Bureau will also and do a better job of talking to the public about any changes it wants to make to data collection, use and retention for future Censuses.

The government published its response to the Senate Economic References Committee’s report, 2016 Census: issues of trust, yesterday (Monday) and agreed to all but one of the Committee’s recommendations.

The Committee report, coupled with the MacGibbon Review, was triggered after the Census website was taken down on Census night (August 9) last year, following a series of Denial of Service attacks which blocked thousands of Australians from completing their Census forms online.

The shutdown proved an international embarrassment for the government, trending globally on social media as #CensusFail, as well as denting public confidence in the government’s ability to deliver digitally.

Besides the ICT meltdown on Census night, there had also been complaints from civil liberties groups and politicians ahead of the 2016 Census, concerned that the Bureau’s changes to data collection had not been properly publicised or consulted on and represented a privacy and security risk.

These changes included matching Census data with other data sets to glean richer statistical data and keeping it for up to four years.

The government has now agreed that the ABS will publish a final report on all future Privacy Impact Statements on the ABS website at least one year ahead of the Census.

But it appeared to fudge any solid dollar commitment or specify any funding level for future Censuses in its 2017-18 Budget, saying only “the Government is committed to funding the Census and its associated activities” and that any decision would be “considered as appropriate during the annual budget cycle”.

Other recommendations the government agreed to included: an open tender process for future censuses; ABS to manage ICT contractors and their work more closely and that the ABS would communicate clearly with the public on the repercussions of not completing a Census, including guidelines on fines, prosecutions and appeals.

But the government did not accept the Committee’s recommendation that it intervene in filling vacant senior roles at the ABS, saying it was outside its remit, except when appointing the Australian Statistician.

It also refused to take on board recommendations from the Nick Xenophon and Stirling Griff (also NXT), who wanted to make it optional for people to provide their names.

Some Greens and independent politicians refused to write their names on last year’s Census forms.

The government knocked back the request: “Mandatory provision of a person’s name in the Census is necessary for a high quality Census and consistent with international practice,” adding that it would hamper accurate population estimates and dilute information quality and range.

The government also rebuffed the two senators’ request for making parliamentary approval necessary for any future plans to link Census data with other data sets, saying there were already strong protections around the use of Census data.

Greens Leader Senator Richard Di Natale had also pushed for a new independent Privacy Impact Assessment for the next Census to be carried out within the next six months. This would include assessing the acceptability of data collection and retention changes made for the 2016 Census.

The government denied his request and said “the ABS has already been subject to considerable external scrutiny about the management of personal information from the 2016 Census”.

It said that the Bureau had already responded to community concerns by altering its policies and procedures.

The MacGibbon Review, led by Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull’s ICT supremo Alastair MacGibbon, stressed the importance of renewing public confidence in the government’s digital transformation mission and highlighted why the 2016 Census failed.

Criticisms included: inadequate preparation against predictable cyber security breaches; poor crisis planning; poor communication, particularly around security and privacy concerns; procurement bungles and an insular ABS culture with an overreliance on past strategies.

The Review concluded: “The public’s confidence in the ability of government to deliver took a serious blow, more so than any previous IT failure.”

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