Australia's census website crashed and no-one is sure whether it was hackers or just incompetence

Australia is having a census nightmare.

First, here’s what we know: The website for completing the census digitally went offline for several hours on Tuesday after technical issues.

But we don’t know what actually happened.

The BBC reports that Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull is blaming the outage — which is believed to have stopped millions from completing the census — onĀ the work of hackers, specifically a DDoS.

DDoS stands for Distributed Denial of Service attack, and it is where an attacker (or attackers) floods the target with malicious traffic from numerous sources — ultimately overwhelming it and crashing it.

“What you saw was the denial of service attack or a denial of service attempt which, as you know, is designed to prevent access to a website as opposed to getting into the server behind it. Some of those defences failed, frankly,” Turnbull said — but he claims no Australians’ data has been accessed or stolen by the alleged attackers.

Meanwhile, the Australian Bureau of Statistics’ Chief Statistician told ABC NewsRadio that there were four attacks, and they came from “overseas.”

But not everyone is convinced by this explanation.

A digital attack map that maps DDoS activity around the world does not show unusual activity in Australia during the purported attacks — suggesting that more prosaic technical reasons may be behind the failure. Infrastructure engineering manager Geordie Guy told The Guardian that “if this was a DDoS and not just rubbish capacity planning for a rendezvous condition [everyone doing the same thing at once on a website], I’ll eat my hat.”

The alternate theory, then, is that it wasn’t attacked — but that the infrastructure put in place was simply inadequate for the incoming traffic. Or perhaps some combinationĀ of the two — a non-exceptional DDoS attack was exacerbated by poor technical planning. (Small business minister Michael McCormack said there had been a “confluence of events.”)

Whatever the ultimate explanation for the outage, it’s an embarrassing episode for the Australian government — and there are already calls for Michael McCormack, who is responsible for the census, to resign.

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