Labor has sounded off on the government’s treatment of the Australian Bureau of Statistics in the wake of its latest technical incident which could have potentially exposed the personal details of respondents in the 2016 Census.

Last week Which-50 broke the news that Macquarie University researchers had found a way to identify individual Census responses and reconstruct the entire database through a fault in the ABS data visualisation tool algorithm.

While the agency is adamant the problem has been addressed and no person’s privacy was compromised, the researchers who discovered it have concerns a more sophisticated attack could still produce similar results.

In response to last week’s incident, Shadow Assistant Treasurer Andrew Leigh told Which-50 the Australian Bureau of Statistics has suffered under the Coalition’s “chaotic leadership”. ABS modelling also shows its budget has been in a steep decline over the same period.

“In the lead-up to the last Census, they left the job of Chief Statistician unfilled for nearly a year,” Leigh said.

“Three ministers were appointed in one year – all of whom ignored the Census and then were surprised when it went wrong. Jobs were cut. The remaining staff struggled under an additional workload thanks to an unnecessary opinion poll on marriage equality.”

“It’s not the way a respected institution like the Australian Bureau of Statistics should be treated.”

The current Assistant Treasurer, Stuart Robert, did not provide a response to Which-50’s questions about the data incident or ABS funding by time of publication.

More with less

The Census data exposure is the latest in a recent history of technical hitches which has coincided with a shrinking budget and continued staff cuts for the ABS, including a $36 million shortfall in the last financial year and ongoing cuts to its programs.

The 2016 Census, the first to be held predominantly online, was expected to save the agency over $100 million dollars. But repeated denial of service forced a website outage and the suspension of the data collection, prompting a media backlash. The incident ultimately created a $24 million budget blow-out. Funding continued to decline after the incident.

The latest ABS forward work program shows just how tight its belt is getting and that it will likely have to do more with less in the future.

Source: Australian Bureau of Statistics – Forward Work Program, 2018-19.

But despite the shrinking budget and the consequent axing of several programs, demand for the data is rising. There were 17.9 million visits to the ABS website and 2.8 million downloads in the last financial year, an annual increase of 11.9 per cent and 12 per cent respectively.

Update: Government response

Assistant Treasurer, Stuart Robert, did not directly address Which-50’s questions on his satisfaction with the ABS solution or its funding. He provided the following comment after publication:

“The Morrison Government is confident the ABS continues to have robust measures to protect Australian’s data across its operations.

“Since becoming aware of the possible, potential vulnerability of the TableBuilder tool in early 2017, the Government has been advised the ABS has put in place strict limits on the number of tables a user can generate without further approval from the ABS to prevent any sophisticated attack. In addition, the ABS closely monitors TableBuilder job logs to detect any suspicious use of the software and has strengthened the terms of use.

“The Government has been advised that there is no evidence of anyone’s privacy ever being compromised through the use of Table Builder.”

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