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Online Census debuts with view to smartcard

Online Census debuts with view to smartcard

The Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS) has officially launched its online census collection application, dubbed eCensus, which could integrate with the proposed Department of Human Services' Access Card at the next census in 2011.

This year's census will for the first time allow citizens to submit their details via a Web browser with 128-bit SSL encryption with eCensus' two-factor authentication consisting of a census form number and an "eCensus number" - both delivered by the collector.

ABS eCensus project manager, Peter Clark told Computerworld that while the resident's details are confirmed at the time of census document delivery, a PKI system was not pursued because of its complexity.

"We wanted to keep it simple," Clark said. "We have two-factor, end-user authentication with 128-bit encryption, and PKI didn't seem the best way to go."

Clark said the proposed Human Services Access Card, which will carry personal information, could be used as a PKI-enabled smartcard. This would theoretically provide a more robust security infrastructure for the census information.

"A smartcard could be on the way and we will look at how we work with that in the 2011 census," Clark said.

Privacy groups have expressed concern that any Human Services Access Card could easily morph into a de facto Australia card and be used to house sensitive information.

Human Services Minister Joe Hockey has dismissed such claims, saying the card will only have information on it which is approved by the holder.

A spokesperson for the Department of Human Services said if other departments are interested in adding features to the Access Card then they would have to "come up with their own budget and plans".

"There are no plans on our end [and] it's not in our basic model," the spokesperson said, adding the smartcard would "not necessarily" allow integration with eCensus.

The Australian Privacy Foundation (APF) has already expressed its disapproval of changing the Census from an anonymous "snapshot" to a "movie that is capable of being associated with the person the data relates to".

The APF believes changing the Census policy raises concerns about government agencies seeking to consolidate information about Australians that will be attractive for use as a means of social control, according to its Web site.

Smartcard integration aside, Clark is "very confident" about eCensus' security as it has been "thoroughly tested and reviewed by third parties".

Clark won't say which third parties performed the security testing, but believes the ABS has taken "appropriate steps" to minimize fraudulent returns.

The ABS does not have a projected ROI for the $9 million eCensus project, but expects to see efficiencies as Census collectors will receive a text message to their mobile phones informing them that a form has been completed online, eliminating the need for a return trip to the house to collect the paper documents.

"We're doing it because we're meeting the public expectation of people wanting to interact with the government online," Clark said. "With increasing Internet take-up into the future, eCensus could generate significant savings. It's quicker and faster online and the advantage is if you complete the form online the collector won't have to come back to your house."

Census collectors can also get SMS requests for additional forms and if they are in a poor coverage area there is a backup voicemail system.

"It's a really exciting project for us and we hope the public takes it up and enjoys the benefit," Clark said.

The eCensus project is now online at www.census.abs.gov.au.

Technology behind the $9 million eCensus project

The ABS entered into a $9 million contract with IBM in early 2005 to develop eCensus allowing people to complete it online for the first time.

Over the past 18 months, IBM and the ABS have developed the Web-based application in HTML and Javascript with a Java backend.

eCensus uses a WebSphere application server and is hosted on the AIX operating system by IBM in Sydney.

The "minimum system requirements" to use eCensus are IE 5.01, Netscape 7.0.2, or Firefox 1.0.

The eCensus and paper Census are then brought together and merged into one stream and processed at the ABS data processing centre in Melbourne and integration is already underway.

Clark said it made sense for the ABS to outsource the project to IBM because of its "one-off" nature and the expected "high spike" in use on August 8.

"It didn't make a lot of sense for us to run up the horsepower to provide this," he said. "And the ABS has IBM contracted for other projects, so it's very much a partnership."

The call centre and SMS services are provided by Salmat and were developed in unison with the eCensus application. - Rodney Gedda

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