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Cyberattack Halts Australia's First Online Census

The webpage of the Australian Bureau of Statistics shows that the online census form is unavailable.
Rick Rycroft
The webpage of the Australian Bureau of Statistics shows that the online census form is unavailable.

Australia launched its first online census this week but was quickly forced to shut it down after what the government said were multiple denial-of-service attacks, which purposefully inundate websites with automated requests to cause shutdowns.

The Australian Bureau of Statistics said it closed down the online census form out of precaution after a fourth attack on Tuesday.

"ABS census security was not compromised ... and no data was lost," Michael McCormack, the minister responsible for the survey, told reporters. "This was not an attack, nor was it a hack. But rather it was an attempt to frustrate the collection of Australian Bureau of Statistics census data."

A denial-of-service attack is, technically, a cyberattack, but there's a bit of uncertainty about what exactly caused the system crash.

ABS said it was working with the Australian Signals Directorate, the country's intelligence agency, to track down the source of the attack and get the system back up safely. But some cyber and infrastructure commentators — as well as critics of Australia's leadership — have also raised questions about the preparedness of the system for heavy traffic to begin with.

ABS said more than 2 million forms were able to go through successfully before the disruption, which ABS' chief statistician said were encrypted and safe. And many Australians had also requested paper forms. But the online survey was expected to be used by the majority of the country's projected population of 24 million, saving the government an estimated 100 million Australian dollars ($77 million).

This is the first time the Australian government has not completed the census in its 105-year history, according to Reuters. The survey takes place every five years and helps inform a multitude of policy and financial decisions by the government and private companies, including spending on healthcare and school services.

The United States is also considering adding an online option for the next census, in 2020, in hopes of appealing to a new generation of citizens and saving federal dollars. The plan has prompted its own share of concerns about data security and fraud.

Canada conducted an online census earlier this year that was met with lots of enthusiasm from the citizenry. The process also faced computer glitches, which the government attributed to the popularity of the survey. CBC News later reported that the temporary crashes were in fact caused by design flaws, citing documents obtained under freedom-of-information laws.

The Wall Street Journal reports that the Australian Bureau of Statistics paid IBM 9.6 million Australian dollars ($7.4 million) to design, develop and implement the online census software.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Alina Selyukh is a business correspondent at NPR, where she follows the path of the retail and tech industries, tracking how America's biggest companies are influencing the way we spend our time, money, and energy.