Statistics Canada has built the technological equivalent of a Hummer in an effort to convince Canadians to complete next year’s census online.
Mel Turner, director general, informatics branch at Statistics Canada, told an audience at GTEC this week that 13 million households will receive a form in the mail with a unique access code they can use to complete the May 2006 survey online.
The department, which is offering the Internet option for the first time on a country-wide basis, is using 1,024-bit PKI encryption, rather than the 128-bit SSL that banks and other commercial organizations use for e-commerce.
Although StatsCan was involved to a certain degree in project management and in the early design, basic architecture and requirements setting, most of the project was contracted out in a project led by Public Works and Government Services Canada using its Team BCE partners, who built the government’s secure channel.
“We’ve always been very concerned with security and the privacy of information; that’s a significant requirement StatCan has, so we wanted Internet systems that have some level of maturity for the protection of data and that means having a mature infrastructure,” said Turner.
Turner said StatsCan prepared for the May 2006 census by performing a test run last year on 300,000 households in three different parts of the country.
“It was completely representative of the way it will be in 2006,” he said. “Obviously, the scale wasn’t the same because we didn’t have the same volume.” But, he added, there were real support processes and help desks set up. A follow up survey showed a 10 per cent takeup rate of online users.
“It wasn’t the 20 per cent because we didn’t do any publicity around this test,” he said. Of those who completed the census online, 89 per cent did it at home. Of those, 79 per cent had a high-speed connection, which is a higher proportion than the number of people who have high speed in Canada. Just over half used the Internet because they said it was easier, and 95 per cent who did it online said they had a positive experience. As well, nearly 60 per cent said they weren’t at all concerned about confidentiality.
“These responses make us hopeful we’ll be very successful next May,” he said.
StatsCan is also confident there is a sufficiently high penetration of Internet access across the nation to ensure the rate of online response it hopes for.
“Obviously, you don’t mount a project like this until you’ve got certain conditions in place,” he said. “One of those is how many Canadians can actually use the Internet, and at the moment the penetration into households in Canada is about 65 to 70 per cent.”
This time around, StatsCan will publicize the online census and will be placing links on bank and other major business sites to encourage Canadians to do their civic duty.
It will also have three help desks set up in Moncton, N.B., Montreal and Edmonton to help users with any questions.
One of the challenges the department faced in developing the application was to make it scalable enough to handle all the concurrent sessions that are expected around the May 16 cut-off date.
“Clearly when you’re doing an application that is trying to serve up to 30 million Canadians, and we expect about 20 per cent to use the internet option, that’s a huge access issue, because those people if they do choose this option will be logging on in quite a narrow time frame around May 16, 2006. But as soon as we put those census forms in their hands we’re going to have people signing on and expecting to get onto the system, so we’ve made a big investment in this project.”
At the same time, there is a huge potential to reduce the costs associated with paper and its processing
as more people complete the census online.
It also faced a challenge in building applications that can be used by an increasing number of browsers. The department estimates about six to seven per cent of users won’t be able to complete the census online because their systems won’t be able to download the encryption applet to the browser.
“Most people who have done any sort of e-commerce or used the Net for any length of time have that installed, but about six or seven per cent we figure of the population who bought a cheap machine that just has the operating system and basic software, those things might not have had the JVM installed or they may have a browser that’s too old to have that installed, so they’ll have to download it to use the application.”
To make it more convenient for users, StatsCan has ensured they can suspend and resume sessions at different computers.
But building in that convenience meant building in industrial strength security, he noted.
“StatsCan is really proud of its past in terms of protection of privacy and the confidence the public places in us, so confidentiality protection is paramount,” said turner. “If we didn’t in the case of the census have the PKI infrastructure that secure channel provides us, we probably would not have trusted just an SSL kind of application for this application.”
Don Lalonde, project manager in PWGSC on the secure channel project, explains StatsCan is using 1024-bit public key infrastructure, which is virtually impossible to break.
As well, he said, with PKI encryption starts at the browser and goes all the way to the end server at StatsCan, whereas with SSL the data gets encrypted and decrypted at various points through the process.
“so we at secure channel and the vendor never see anything when dealing with any kind of data,” he said. “It’s always encrypted from where the user puts in their browser all the way to StatsCan.”
PWGSC developed for StatsCan a technology called SEAL (session encryption automated login) that Team BCE developed, which uses anonymous certificates.
“When they type in the Web address for census2006.ca, they click on a button that said start the census app,” he said. “Then the PKI key for StatsCan is downloaded to the browser along with the java applet, which is used to take that key and encrypt the data.
“That’s the beauty: it’s all done in the background.”
Lalonde said the SEAL technology can be used for other government applications that use surveys. Revenue Canada is also looking at using it for its e-File application.