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Friday, 01 July 2016 11:01

myGov is a disaster waiting to happen


With the announcement that, from this year onwards, Australians will have to file their taxes online using the myGov portal, a nice new target has been created for hackers who, like all other humans, want maximum returns for minimum work.

While the idea of having a single portal for all government dealings online sounds very good in theory, it may not be the best idea in practice.

Part of this tasty data soup will be the material collected in the forthcoming 9 August census. The Australian Bureau of Statistics has announced plans to store the names and addresses collected in the 2016 census for years to come.

In the short term, it will be cheaper for the government to have a portal that holds all the information about its citizens; if it were hacked, there would be hell to pay.

But many of the government's policies, the latest being the move to crack down harder on welfare cheats announced by treasurer Scott Morrison, can only be implemented if all the data is available in one place and in a format that lends itself to being searched.

When different agencies control different datasets in formats that are often incompatible with other systems — and vice versa — little correlation can be done. Government offices often tend to have antiquated technology which does not lend itself to being used across platforms.

Big data is a concept that has become more and more fashionable recently and the idea of using it for governmental purposes is very seductive.

The lack of security on myGov was exposed two years ago when a security researcher found very basic vulnerabilities in the setup and was able to demonstrate the extraction of data without jumping through too many hoops. And that's not the only case of bungled security.

The problem is that when a researcher or even a group of researchers finds weaknesses in government or corporate systems, their findings are not taken seriously until they go public. And when they do that, quite often red-faced officials try to retaliate for having been shown up.

Or the Australian Federal Police could land up on your doorstep and proceed to trash your home.

So what eventuates is that many individual researchers end up selling their discoveries on the dark web and keeping quiet about it. It's a much better option than trying to do good and then getting harassed about it.

Over the last two years, there have been a series of hacks that have left billions of users exposed worldwide. LinkedIn was about the most recent that has been publicised. Most of this data finds itself into the hands of professionals who make a living out of selling it.

One must remember that the data which the government is collecting about Australians is much more detailed than that which naive people give up willingly to companies like Facebook and Google. In the end, the name of the game is micro-targeted advertising and marketing. And big profits for corporations that claim to do no evil.

Let us also bear in mind the fact that councils in this country have been caught selling data about people residing within their boundaries. Even the ABS does it. You just have to love the free market.

Security is very much a relative concept; no device that is connected to the public Internet can ever be 100% secure. The only way to guarantee against information leaks is by encasing a device in concrete and then sinking it to the bottom of the Pacific Ocean (the Atlantic or Indian Oceans would do as well).

It is unlikely that, despite changes to the privacy act, a government organisation would disclose that it has leaked data through a hack. In such a scenario, covering one's backside is the prime consideration. Many years ago when I wrote about the defacement of a council website in Western Australia, the response of the man in charge — from whom I sought comment — was to call me a son-of-a-bitch.

Of course, anyone who discusses things like this will be called a wowser. That is to be expected. But we are entering a brave new world, guided by people who have very little technical knowledge. There is a sense of confidence which borders on arrogance and that is never a good thing.

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Sam Varghese

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Sam Varghese has been writing for iTWire since 2006, a year after the site came into existence. For nearly a decade thereafter, he wrote mostly about free and open source software, based on his own use of this genre of software. Since May 2016, he has been writing across many areas of technology. He has been a journalist for nearly 40 years in India (Indian Express and Deccan Herald), the UAE (Khaleej Times) and Australia (Daily Commercial News (now defunct) and The Age). His personal blog is titled Irregular Expression.

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