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ABS funding cuts see internet usage and IT surveys on chopping block

In its work program for the next year, the Australian Bureau of Statistics has said it will need to secure funding for its lowest tier of surveys, or look to cut them.
Written by Chris Duckett, Contributor

During the current financial year, the Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS) will be looking at the frequency of its retail, housing, lending, and trade statistic releases, and look at its tier 3 statistics to see if others can fund their collection.

"It may be necessary to cease these outputs if user funding cannot be secured," the ABS said in its 2016-17 Forward Work Program.

Among the surveys labelled as third tier are: The Internet Activity Survey; Household Use of Information Technology collection; measures of research and development undertaken by businesses, governments, higher education institutions, and private not-for-profit organisations; new geospatial techniques and data sources to support Carbon Farming Initiative; and national recorded crime victim statistics.

In a statement, the ABS said no decision had yet been made on what to cut, and that its Census funding was separate.

"The ABS, like all government agencies, must operate within our budget," it said. "Future consultation will consider our broad legislative obligations and options regarding the value, usefulness and frequency of some indicators."

The Internet Activity Survey provides an overview of the amount of data downloaded by Australians on both fixed-line and mobile connections, and a rudimentary breaking down of connection speeds for fixed-line customers.

"Given its ham-fisted approach to housing affordability, Medicare, and the NBN, perhaps we shouldn't be surprised that the Turnbull government now thinks Australians can't handle the truth about these areas," Shadow Assistant Treasurer Andrew Leigh said in a statement.

"These potential cuts come at a time when the government has not revealed the cost blowouts of its bungled Census."

Relentless cuts to the ABS and an uncertain funding future spelled doom for the Australian 2016 Census, the Community and Public Sector Union said last month.

In a submission to the Senate Standing Committee on Economics, which is conducting an inquiry into the 2016 Census debacle, the union said financial pressures and the need for savings affected work on the Census.

"Members report the ABS only received half of the money they needed for the ICT transformation program," the CPSU said. "Budgetary and workload pressures were a factor behind some of the ABS' decisions about keeping data, such as keeping it for a longer period of time.

"The decision to try to save money by trying to cancel the Census in 2016 stopped planning for six months at a critical juncture," the union quoted one member as saying. "It was then too late to ensure systems would be ready."

In its own submission to the inquiry, the ABS said IBM failed to adequately address the risk posed to the Census systems it was under contract to provide.

"The online Census system was hosted by IBM under contract to the ABS, and the DDoS attack should not have been able to disrupt the system," the ABS said. "Despite extensive planning and preparation by the ABS for the 2016 Census, this risk was not adequately addressed by IBM and the ABS will be more comprehensive in its management of risk in the future."

ABS said it had "received various assurances" from IBM on its ability to have distributed denial-of-service attacks (DDoS), but the bureau did not independently test the DDoS protections for the online Census.

Special Adviser to the Prime Minister on Cyber Security Alastair MacGibbon has been examining the Census debacle, with radio station 2GB stating yesterday that MacGibbon had handed his report to Turnbull.

In the aftermath of Census night, Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull said he was angry that the site fell to an "entirely predictable" denial-of-service attack, and that heads would roll.

Updated October 13 at 5:30pm AEDT: Additional comment from ABS.

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