Management > Security

ONS: 2021 Census will be strongly online-based

David Bicknell Published 11 August 2016

UK statisticians are aiming for 75% of the next Census to be conducted online; insist lessons will be learnt from Australian’s problems


The Office for National Statistics (ONS) has maintained that the 2021 Census in the UK will be “predominantly online” and says it will take on board the lessons from this week’s problems in Australia.

The Census Down Under hit problems when the website crashed, with the Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS) blaming a series of denial of service incidents.

ONS officials say 17% of the UK’s 2011 was conducted online, leading it to believe that the majority of the 2021 exercise should continue down the online route. Some testing is already taking place, with the Government Digital Service (GDS) offering some advice for the project.

The lessons learned from the Australian Census problems are likely to be shared with international  statisticians and Census specialists at an international forum in October, the ONS said. Lessons from a Canadian Census earlier this year are also likely to be discussed.

In a statement on its website, the ABS said, “The secure online Census form was put back up at 2.30 pm, Thursday 11th August, following advice from the Australian Signals Directorate.

“The ABS again apologises for the inconvenience and thanks everyone affected for their patience and helping shape Australia’s future.”

Explaining the problems, the ABS said, “On 9 August, the ABS was subjected to an attempt to frustrate its collection of Census data. Census security was not compromised and no data was lost.

“The events varied in nature and severity, and led the ABS to adopt a very cautious approach in relation to the 2016 Census online form.

“There were three denial of service incidents during the day. A denial of service is an attempt to block people from accessing a website,” the ABS added.

“The ABS was expecting denial of service incidents and the protective measures in place managed the first three attempts with only very minor service disruptions.

“The Australian Signals Directorate (ASD), a Commonwealth intelligence agency, was notified of this by the ABS.

“Use of the online form increased steadily during the day and as at 7:30 the system was receiving 150 forms per second and this was well within the tested capacity of the system.

“Just after 7.30pm, the following confluence of events occurred:

    · A fourth denial of service attempt

    · A large increase in traffic to the website with thousands of Australians logging on to complete their Census

    · A hardware failure when a router became overloaded

    · Occurrence of a false positive, which is essentially a false alarm in some of the system monitoring information.

“At the time of these events, more than two million forms had already been successfully submitted and safely stored.

“The ABS applied an abundance of caution and took the precaution of closing down the online Census form to safeguard and to protect data already submitted, protect the system from further incidents, and minimise disruption on the Australian public of an unreliable service.

“Government and ASD were notified by the ABS. Reviews by IBM, ASD and ABS have confirmed that this was not a hack – no Census data was compromised.

Had these events occurred in isolation, the online system would have been maintained.

“ASD are investigating these events. The ABS is working to restore service. We will only restore the service when we know it is robust and secure, and when the ASD provides clearance to do so.

“The ABS apologises to the Australian public for inconvenience caused and reassures Australia that no data has been lost or compromised. The ABS has an unblemished record of protection of data and there has never been a breach in relation to Census data. The protection of Census data has and always will be our first priority.

“There’s still plenty of time to complete your Census. We ask Australians to complete their forms as soon as possible. Fines will not be imposed for completing the Census after Census night.”

Following the Census process, there will be a review of events, headed by the Government's Cyber Security Adviser, Alastair MacGibbon.

Related articles:

Aussies suffer Census headache as online system fails

ONS schedules national census procurement events

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