Census 2021 countdown: ABS taking rigorous steps to ensure no repeat of cyber attack on Census night

Sally Hopman 3 August 2021 8
Andrew Henderson

Australia’s 2021 Census spokesperson Andrew Henderson. Photo: Australian Bureau of Statistics.

The Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS) is confident the upcoming 2021 Census won’t suffer the same fate as the 2016 event, where its website crashed on Census night following a series of cyber attacks.

Significant work has been conducted to ensure that on 2021 Census night, Tuesday, 10 August, every Australian, regardless of where they live, will be counted.

This year’s Census message is ‘Every Stat Tells a Story’.

Australia’s Census, held every five years, aims to count every person in every household in Australia – from cities to the bush – providing government, business and not-for-profit groups with crucial information about what services, such as schools, hospitals and transport, are needed where.

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On Census night in 2016, millions of people were locked out of the Census website. The online form crashed after a series of Distributed Denial of Service (DDoS) attacks, which was then compounded by the failure of the supplier’s router.

The ABS took the decision to shut down the site for security reasons, and it remained offline for one day, 18 hours and 44 minutes.

Despite this setback, 4.9 million online submissions were received, along with 3.5 million paper forms. A total of 63.3 per cent of participants completed their Census form online.

Census executive director and national spokesperson Andrew Henderson said much has been learned from 2016, with the online Census 2021 system being rebuilt from the ground up.

Person filling in Census form manually

You can still fill in your Census form by hand, although 63.3 per cent of Australians submitted theirs online in 2016. Photo: Australian Bureau of Statistics.

“Everything is new,” he said. “Working with the Australian Cyber Security Centre, we’ve had independent assessments of the security. We even had ethical hackers come in – providing them with part of a code – to see if they could break into it. They couldn’t.

“We’ve been told our system is as good as it gets.”

However, Mr Henderson adds it will always be a continual race against cyber criminals in the ever-changing digital landscape.

He speaks to Census workers across Australia via video conference daily, and said the mood among the teams is upbeat.

“There has been a huge level of preparation leading up to this time,” he said, with much of the work starting when the last Census ended in 2016.

Using computer keyboard to fill in form.

A majority of Australians choose to fill in their Census form online. Photo: Australian Bureau of Statistics.

“I believe we’ve done everything we possibly can,” said Mr Henderson.

This includes providing more options for people to complete their Census forms.

In these COVID-19 times, Mr Henderson said people could fill in the forms at a time to suit them, either online, on a smartphone, a tablet, laptop or a paper form if preferred.

Extra Census support workers will also be employed in the field to help people, particularly in rural, regional and remote communities, as well as via phone and online services and public hubs.

Most households will start receiving instructions on how to complete the 2021 Census in early August.

More information on the 2021 Census is available here.

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8 Responses to Census 2021 countdown: ABS taking rigorous steps to ensure no repeat of cyber attack on Census night
Nathan Bolstad Nathan Bolstad 2:40 pm 19 Jul 21

Not a cyber attack. That's just spin.

I have not seen any answers (or even the question) as to

A) why sensor.abs.gov.au had 4x name servers, but abs.gov.au had only 1x BEFORE the crash, and act the site came back up, there were 2x at Telstra and 2x at Optus.

B) why, when it was crashing, was content being server from Austin, Texas.

With B) I wouldn't be surprised if the Pacific link was overloaded due to the (apparent) lack of a content distribution site being located within Australia.

I was looking at this during the outage and I didn't see anything that yelled cyber attach. I did however see poor planning at the level needed to allow such a large number of broswers accessing census.abs.gov.au at the peak times (I.e. after work)

Russell Nankervis Russell Nankervis 10:58 pm 18 Jul 21

Still don't have proper questions on gender and sexuality

Steve Herczeg Steve Herczeg 10:08 pm 18 Jul 21

You mean they actually conducted performance testing this time?

Daniel Oyston Daniel Oyston 9:50 pm 18 Jul 21

and then …

Jim Roy Jim Roy 8:46 pm 18 Jul 21

Public record.


“The Board of Inquiry into that failure was 225 pages long. However, to attempt to summarize, the report describes ***a customer who had little idea what they actually needed*** a fixed deadline, and a contractor who delivered (approximately) what they were asked for who did not concern themselves in any way with what was actually needed.”

Gabriel Spacca Gabriel Spacca 8:15 pm 18 Jul 21

Cyber attack? We’re rewriting history are we?

How about; “The ABS is taking steps to ensure its network can handle the load this time around.”

Steve Ulr Steve Ulr 7:01 pm 18 Jul 21

Cyber attack? Really?

Tracey Morton-Fisher Tracey Morton-Fisher 6:55 pm 18 Jul 21

🙄 believe it when we see it.

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