Canadians swamp 2006 online census

Statistics Canada told Canadians not to worry about the deadline to fill in the 2006 census after users overloaded the portal it had set up to capture the data.

After outages on Tuesday night, a notice was posted on Wednesday informing visitors that “the site is temporarily experiencing traffic far beyond capacity.” Although a major marketing campaign had urged Canadians to “count yourself in” by May 16, the notice said the online questionnaire will operate for another week, until May 23.

In a presentation to the annual GTEC conference in Ottawa last fall, StatsCan officials said they had hoped to see 20 per cent of the population use the electronic channel to fill out the census. The paper form sent to every household also included a unique identification number that was to be used to check system requirements and log in to fill out the questionnaire. StatsCan worked with a group from Bell Canada dubbed Team BCE as well as IBM, whose Toronto lab created the application behind the online census. Help desks in Moncton, N.B., Montreal and Edmonton were set up to field user’s questions.

Since it launched on May 2, StatsCan has been beset by complaints from open source users and security experts, as well as citizens who are angry with its decision contract hardware, software and printing services to U.S. defence firm Lockheed Martin.

Canadian census director general Anil Arora said that Tuesday night was the first time StatsCan had to post what he called a “graceful deferral” message asking Canadians to come back and try to fill out the questionnaire later due to technical issues. There were two other occasions where the same message was posted, he added, but this was only so that the team behind the site could do some preventative maintenance.

“Nobody has done an exercise like this in Canada where you open up the Web to everybody (to fill out the census online),” he said. “We didn’t have any kind of a track record, any kind of experience as to how many people could log on at any moment.”

StatsCan conducted a dress rehearsal of sorts for last year with pre-selected users, but it was still difficult to forecast the kind of peaks to which the online application would be subjected, Arora said.

“We knew yesterday was going to be challenging no matter what,” he admitted. “We had no idea, no precedent of what kind of load we would have.”

StatsCan opted to use 1,024-bit PKI encryption from Entrust, rather than the 128-bit secure socket layer (SSL) that is common in many other enterprise IT environments. That extra protection led to an outcry from open source users, who complained that their OSes were incompatible with the census. The Vancouver Linux User Group, for example, led a campaign that suggested the census violated the Canadian government’s own Common Look and Feel guidelines for online applications. Those guidelines stipulate that “all GoC Web sites must comply with W3C Priority 1 and Priority 2 checkpoints to ensure sites can be easily accessed by the widest possible audience.”

“It wasn’t for lack of trying. Entrust 7.1 did not support Linux,” Arora said. “We couldn’t test it. Then we found out people were pretty upset. That’s when I launched a small team to find out how do we make this happen?”

The solution involved a move to Entrust 8, among other things, but Arora said Linux users were able to access about 36 hours after his group looked into the problem.

Members of the IT security community, meanwhile, took umbrage when their efforts to get more details on the security behind the census were rebuffed. This included a group of University of Ottawa students who filed an Access to Information Request so they could audit the software documentation and the policy behind it.

“Security by obscurity is a joke,” said Russell McOrmand, who runs the Web site Digital Copyright Canada, and who recommended Canadians not download and run such software on their computers. “Their claim is they can’t disclose because of security concerns. So you let the bad guys in, but you don’t let the good guys review your stuff.”

Arora counters that the online census was independently audited by several firms, including Cinnibar, TRM Technologies and CGI. A report on the security of the software was also reviewed by the Canaidan Security Establishment, while a task force led by former auditor general Denis Desautels also looked at the privacy and security issues.

“We opened up to some of the toughest critics out there,” Arora said.

The relationship with Lockheed Martin led a non-profit advocacy group called Vive Le Canada to call for a boycott on the census. Vive Le Canada is worried that if Lockheed Martin, as an American company, obtains census information it would fall under the U.S. Patriot Act. Susan Thompson, the group’s founder, said 900 people have signed its e-mail petition so far.

“It would have been preferable if Statistics had chosen a Canadian company, or to develop that ability in-house,” she said. “I think people wouldn’t be as concerned if it was not Lockheed Martin.”

Arora insists the fears are unfounded. “All the data never goes anywhere other than Statistics Canada,” he said. “They don’t hold the databases, they don’t have access to the databases, all these databases are in our own isolated facilities.”

New Zealand and Switzerland are among the few other countries to attempt an online census.

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