australia

It seems that the United States isn’t the only government that struggles to make a functional website.

The Sydney Morning Herald reports that the Australian government has failed to fix security flaws with the country’s myGov site, leaving millions of Australians’ personal information unprotected. A simple exploit can be used to gather information about someone’s medical history, tax logs, welfare payments, and other data handled by many government services connected to the site.

Gathering the information from the site doesn’t require any dumb moves — downloading an odd file, clicking a bad link — on the user’s part. According to the Herald’s report, all visitors have to do is visit a website with a suspect advertisement to have their accounts compromised. In other words, there’s little they can do to protect themselves from a security bug affecting government services they will be required by law to use this year.

The report shows the problem with moving towards an all-digital method of interacting with the government. Canada had to stop offering its online tax-filing service after the Heartbleed bug was revealed, as the vulnerability would have left personal information woefully insecure. Healthcare.gov asked its users to change their passwords after the bug was revealed, and it has been plagued with security issues of its own, according to numerous cybersecurity experts.

It makes sense for these governments to switch from paper forms to online tools. We’re living in a time when computers (including smartphones) are capable of doing just about anything imaginable and have little patience for inefficiency, which is almost a government trademark. Put another way: many millennials don’t want to pick up a pencil when they can click a link.

But there are obvious disadvantages to switching over to digital, and so far it seems that many countries are incapable of protecting their citizens’ most sensitive information throughout this shift. Maybe that’s because of the convoluted process through which some of these sites are built, which is blamed for many of Healthcare.gov’s problems.  Maybe it’s because the tools used to create these sites are outside of governmental control and introduce their own problems, which is why Canada had to nix its electronic tax-filing tools. And maybe it’s because warnings about various insecurities are lost in the bureaucratic machine, which seems to be the case with Australia’s myGov site.

There are all kinds of things that can go wrong with a website, government or otherwise. And there are going to be more stories like this one, where millions of people are affected by a government’s struggle to keep up with the shift from papers to servers.

[Photo by Travis Simon]