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Census 2016: why ABS head Kalisch should walk the plank

Australian Bureau of Statistics chief David Kalisch may be a master in the art of using statistics. But he has shown to all and sundry that his knowledge of IT security is a big zero.

Kalisch has been left looking like the emperor in Hans Christian Andersen's famous fairy tale, talking of the wonderful robustness that the ABS had developed to handle the census online, and then having to take down the site as early as 7.30pm.

This time, we do not need a nine-year-old — as Andersen did to point out that the emperor has no clothes.

As I write this, Kalisch is on ABC News 24, addressing the media and claiming that no data has been compromised. But how does he know? That little detail is missing as this unelected bureaucrat continues making claim after claim.

(It is also apparent from watching this media conference that the minister in charge of the census, Michael McCormack knows as little about IT security as Kalisch does.)

The contradiction does not seem to register with Kalisch: on the one hand he was claiming till he was blue in the face that the ABS website was so robust it could withstand anything thrown at it. Now he says the data is secure.

How can that be? If there was someone who pressed the submit button (or its equivalent) and saw a 404 page emerge as the response, is that person's data safe? Was it received by the ABS or not?

I know what the former host of The Daily Show, Jon Stewart, would call this: a glorious cluster****.

Every single ABS official, from Kalisch downwards, was the epitome of certainty when asked whether the website could handle the load. Indeed, one official claimed that the site could handle 1,000,000 submissions per hour!

The fact that the ABS could not even run an automated phone line 24/7 to handle requests for paper forms without it breaking down shows the level of competence that exists at this august organisation.

Kalisch himself has gone on the record in print, on TV and in many an online publication, refusing to entertain any doubt that the census would be anything but a grand success.

In the run-up to the event, the ABS removed material from its website as the contradictions between claim and reality became evident.

It also refused to answer relevant claims made about the Census and Statistics Act by a reputed former ABS head, Bill McLennan.

The ABS has paid IBM and Revolution IT big sums to ensure the success of the census. Will there be some accountability demanded from these organisations now?

Kalisch has shown us that he has overtaken politicians like Attorney-General George Brandis and former prime minister, Tony Abbott, in one field: incompetence.

If he has any integrity, he should admit that he is unable to fulfil the responsibilities of his post and step down.


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Sam Varghese

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A professional journalist with decades of experience, Sam for nine years used DOS and then Windows, which led him to start experimenting with GNU/Linux in 1998. Since then he has written widely about the use of both free and open source software, and the people behind the code. His personal blog is titled Irregular Expression.