By JR on Saturday, August 13, 2016
The senseless census
I was one of the many who criticized in advance the arrangements for this year's census. Retaining names and addresses instead of anonymizing the data is a basic breach of good survey practice and would significantly degrade the quality of the data, as people become less frank about their replies. So the claim that the new system would yield better and more useful data was an obvious lie. It would do the opposite.
I was also derisive of the claim that the data would be hacker-proof. Just making that claim would undermine it. It would be like a red rag to a bull to all the world's hackers. It was an almost certain invitation to hacking.
So when the system failed long before the census was complete, I initially felt rather pleased. It suggested that my prediction of hackers treating it as a challenge had been vindicated
As soon as a bit more information came through I abandoned that thought, however. And the initial claim by the government -- that the system had been hit by a DDOS attack seemed informative. My conclusion then was that the system had not in fact been hit by a DDOS attack but rather by something very similar to a DDOS attack: A meltdown caused by large and unexpected numbers of legitimate users trying to log on. In short, the system ran out of capacity. All the good and dutiful Australians logging on to do their duty once the evening meal was cleared away were the problem. They should not have been the problem. They were the people the system was built for.
So the problem was not any politician or bureaucrat but rather the firm -- IBM -- that had the contract to provide and operate the system. They totally goofed. Their estimate of the resources that would been needed was way too low. And I think a lot of people are now converging on that as the explanation. I think that that will soon become the accepted explanation for the meltdown.
IBM are a famous company so it is no discredit to Malcolm Turnbull or anyone else in the government that IBM was given the job. Champion whiner Bill Shorten seem to think that the government was at fault in the matter but had he won the recent election, he would have found himself at the nominal head of exactly the same IBM-run system. What would he have done differently? He does not say.
That IBM made a huge mess on this occasion was however not without precedent. A few years ago, they totally stuffed up the payroll program that they provided to Queensland Health. You would think that a payroll program was such a routine thing now that nobody could stuff it up. But IBM did. A program that had to look after only 40,000 people took years to get right and ended up costing the Queensland taxpayers ten time what it should have. One suspects that IBM is now not the company it used to be.
Presumably, the system will in due course be modified so that the census can complete. The question then is whether or not we should boycott the whole thing. I think it is clear that we should give them as little information as possible. Governments are champion misusers and losers of all kinds of data, so the less they have the better. And the current chaos is surely excellent evidence of that. Other disastrous mistakes will be made and any one of us could become a victim of that. Anyone who trusts governments is a fool.
And on this occasions there is an extra reason to tread carefully. After this census each of us will be given a permanently identifying code-name linked to our natural name. And that code-name will become the core of a vast data-sucking apparatus that will work silently for the rest of our lives. It will be used to search through all existing government and non-government databases -- Centrelink, Medicare, Telstra, the courts, the hospitals etc -- to form an absolutely huge body of information about each of us. We will have a new national ID no. that will follow us everywhere. Anyone with access to a government computer will know everything about us that has ever been written down. To think that such access will never be misused would be very naive indeed.
Let me give an example of a problem. Say that one of us just once has an episode of depression and visits a doctor about it. That will be known. Even if the problem was transitory -- due to a relationship breakdown or some such -- it will be there on record to be used against us. And if a government wants to discredit a whistle-blower who is revealing important and embarrassing information about that government, it has the tool it needs to hand. It can say that "He has a history of mental illness and what he says should therefore be disregarded". That fleeting depressive episode will be used to discredit anything we might say.
I a personally am a most buoyant person but I am not made of stone so I did once have such a episode at the end of a valued marriage. Eventually the local doctor I consulted gave up his business. And at that time he gave all his record cards back to the patients concerned. It was with some satisfaction that I burnt mine. You won't be able to burn any present-day records.
And an interesting thing is that our new personal ID no. for everything would resurrect Bob Hawke's "Australia card" of a few decades ago. Bob Hawke nearly got that through to great and widespread consternation. Fortunately, the project fell at the last hurdle amid widespread relief. But the snoops never go away. This is their second chance to get all the information they need to control us. They must fail