Respected information security journalist and podcaster Patrick Gray has blown the lid on the spectacular set of blunders behind Australia’s failed online census.
In a short, punchy but highly lucid missive posted on his Risky.Biz website, Mr Gray exposed in great detail what he believed was the real set of events and failures that led to the online census failure.
And what he exposed could leave the Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS) and its main contractor, IBM, showered in embarrassment for a long time. Mr Gray has described the handling of the online census project as “amateur hour”.
Mr Gray is extremely cautious and discrete about discussing his sources, so he was strictly unwilling to discuss his information gathering process with CSO in any way. However, the narrative he has pulled together maps accurately to the reports of those who tried to access the online census site and its eventual demise.
The most egregious failure, according to Mr Gray, was that IBM and the ABS opted to forego the use of denial-of-service attack defence technology offered by one of its upstream network providers.
What then unfolded was a series of missteps and misjudgements as it evolved that the technology was very badly needed.
The ABS and IBM gambled on a plan to ask its upstream network provider to block traffic from outside Australia in the event that a denial-of-service attack was detected. A small attack was detected and offshore traffic to the site was blocked in line with the plan however, another attack, for which the ABS had no contingency to repel was directed at it from within Australia.
The strength of the attack is currently unknown but the ABS was essentially defenceless.
The attack crippled the ABS firewall and the census site’s operators opted to restart it and fall back to a secondary firewall. However, they forgot to check that it had the same configuration as the primary firewall. That crippled the census site.
In an unfortunate confluence of events, IBM’s security warning systems started flagging some unusual activity, which indicated that information on the ABS servers was heading offshore. The site’s operators, thinking the DDoS activity was a distraction, interpreted the alarms as a successful hack and they suspected cyber attackers were stealing census data information.
According to Mr Gray, these were little more than benign system logs and that the technical staff monitoring the situation poorly understood it.
Amid the confusion they naturally erred on the side of caution, decided to pull the plug on the site and called in the Australian Signals Directorate (ASD) to investigate.
The ABS has defended the failure pointing the blame at a “series” of denial-of-service attacks. However, Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull yesterday seemed dissatisfied with that response.
During a press conference Prime Minister Turnbull said:
"I made it very, very clear that what we needed to do was be absolutely straight and frank with the Australian people.
"This has been a failure of the ABS."
Australian Privacy Commissioner Timothy Pilgrim trod a careful middle ground on the incident in a statement released by his office yesterday.
“The ABS’s decision to shut down the website — to avoid any prospect that the DoS attack could include or otherwise facilitate a data breach — was, in the circumstances, a pro-privacy precaution.
“This incident will now be the subject of a broader review led by the Prime Minister’s cyber-security Advisor, Alastair MacGibbon. I have discussed with Mr MacGibbon how our Offices will work together as part that review,” Mr Pilgrim said.