Australia's first online census crashes amid cyber-attack

The website for Australia's first online national census has crashed after a possible cyber-attack, raising concerns over the country's cyber security and bringing criticism of its slow internet services to the fore.

"It was an attack and we believe from overseas," said Australia's chief statistician, David Kalisch.

However, he tempered the news by noting that no data had been stolen from the 2.3 million forms already submitted to the Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS). "We have it at the ABS. No one else has it," he said.

The census provides a snapshot every five years of the living conditions of Australia's 24 million people, detailing incomes, religious and ethnic backgrounds, marital status and other key statistics.

The minister responsible for the survey, Michael McCormack, refused to call the online crash an attack, but rather a ‘denial of service attempt’, which is when a website is deliberately overloaded with data requests.

He said that although the site was equipped to handle heavy traffic, there was a spike in visitors so steep that a router overloaded and the website was closed as a precaution.

"This was not an attack, nor was it a hack, but rather it was an attempt to frustrate the collection of Bureau of Statistics census data," McCormack said.

As authorities scrambled to provide a cohesive explanation for why the census was not completed for the first time in its 105-year history, some politicians and privacy advocates said the incident vindicated their security concerns.

Some independent Senators boycotted the census because for the first time it was mandatory for Australians to identify themselves in the survey.

"It shows woeful disregard for Australian people's privacy and data," Anna Johnston, a privacy lawyer said.

The failure has also led to criticism of Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull's decision to scale back a A$38bn (£22.4bn) upgrade of Australia's internet infrastructure, stopping short of connecting homes directly to a broadband network amid cost overruns.

Australia's internet services rank 48th in the world by average speed, according to the most recent State of the internet report by Akamai Technologies, an IT company specialising in internet speed technology.

Both Australia's Signals Directorate, an intelligence agency, and the government-appointed privacy commissioner, Timothy Pilgrim, are investigating the crash.

"My first priority is to ensure that no personal information has been compromised as a result of these attacks," Pilgrim said in a statement.

It recently emerged that a malware program called ‘ProjectSauron’ that has been appearing on targeted computers could have been sponsored by a nation state. 

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