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Census Threatened With Paper DoS Attack

Peter Judge has been involved with tech B2B publishing in the UK for many years, working at Ziff-Davis, ZDNet, IDG and Reed. His main interests are networking security, mobility and cloud

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Protesters have spotted that the census may be vulnerable, through its legacy paper support, says Peter Judge

The government is going all-out to put services online,  to save money. But while we are in a transitional state, the services are vulnerable to protests that could be called a paper-based denial of service (DoS) attack.

David Cameron has given Martha Lane Fox the job of getting poor and technophobic people to use online services, with the obvious benefit that online services are much cheaper to administer and big savings could be made if the government could “switch off” the paper versions.

However, despite the offer of cheap PCs, there are approximately 9.2 million people offline, and for some of them poor broadband coverage makes it unlikely they will get on any time soon.

Unfortunately, this introduces uncertainty into the cost of any web-based government service, and at least one protest movement is trying to exploit that. Welcome to the age of the paper DOS attack.

Census objectors – stand up and be counted!

Several different groups have objected to the census, on grounds of privacy and state intrusion, but peace activists have a different problem. The census is being processed by Lockheed Martin, the world’s largest defence contractor, whose other business includes making  Trident nuclear missiles, cluster bombs and fighter jets.

As well as innocently probing the activities of UK citizens for the census, the company apparently limbered up by providing “private contract interrogators” for Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo Bay.

All of which makes Peace News angry, but put it in a quandary.

The actual census itself is innocuous, and even a good thing. The information about housing and jobs is used as a basis for distributing public services, so no census forms could mean no services. London has a particularly poor rate of Census returns, and Mayor Boris Johnson has said that every form not filled in means £600 less for him to spend on Londoners’ needs.

Boycotting the census wouldn’t hurt Lockheed Martin, would result in fewer benefits in your particular area, and would get you a £1,000 fine.

So Peace News suggests – in an anonymous article – that citizens should hit the company’s profits, by complying with the census, but making it as expensive as possible to process the forms.

The sums are interesting. Lockheed Martin is getting about £150 million for doing the census, which works out (over 39 million households) at about £4 per form. The Peace News article reckons a well-filled in form can be processed in five minutes if the automation process works – but any extra time taken will cost the company an extra £1 per minute.

Making it awkward

The article is rather beautiful, and has plenty of suggestions to make the forms harder to deal with.

First, and most obviously, it advises people not to use the online version of the form: “an on-line return is the cheapest and easiest option for Lockheed Martin to process.”

Instead, protesters should use the paper form, and be sure not to give the census organisation any easy way to contact them.

“Do not provide convenient contact details when filling in your census form or on any other piece of paper relating to the census,” the article suggests. “After all, nobody can force you to possess a telephone or email. Paper correspondence is much more expensive.”

Any correspondence should be addressed by post to the Census organisation, it says, and indeed, could also go to the head of the census operation – whose postal address the article helpfully gives.

The census forms include bar codes to speed the processing, and Peace News thinks it would be a shame, but quite understandable, if these sometimes became unreadable because of marmalade smears or ink blots.

Similarly, Blu-tak or sellotape on the forms might make it hard for Lockheed’s automatic scanners to handle them.

“If (God forbid!) you wrote something down all wrong, you could either cross it out firmly, and write the information somewhere else with a helpful arrow to the place where it should have been written, or you could glue, sellotape or staple another piece of paper in the approximate place on top of the erroneous entry and write the correct information on it,” suggests the article. “In either case, the computers scanner will not be able to read the information and will refer it back to a human being to deal with.”

And the same goes for box-ticking.  “There will many boxes to tick.” says the article. “It is so easy to tick the wrong boxes in all the excitement. It is best to firmly cross it all out and write in the margin, or wherever there is some space, something like: ‘Sorry, it should have been this one’, with an arrow pointing in the approximate direction.”

Beyond that, it has plenty of other fun suggestions. Fill the form in upside down, or tick multiple boxes: “Tick both boxes ‘Male’ and ‘Female’ (adding, if you wish, words like ‘undecided’ or ‘it all depends’, etc. wherever you find space to write, to show that you are taking the question seriously and don’t just tick any old boxes).”

As Lockheed says in its internal documents, “coding is a difficult and expensive process”.

Peace News doesn’t want to cause too much trouble, or actually derail the census. “Life is short and there are more rewarding things to do with your time.” it says. “You only need to choose a few of all those suggestions above to make your intervention an effective one.” And the fact that “prepared” forms will be distributed at random should make them very effective.

No doubt, only a small minority of census forms will be “prepared” using the methods suggested above, but those forms will be randomly distributed amongst all the others (if the outer envelope carries no signs). Such randomness increases their effectiveness, for they unexpectedly interrupt the flow of the operation in its various stages.

A blueprint for paper-based protests

What we have here is a blueprint for future protests that could exploit the mismatch between online and paper-based services. It isn’t really a denial of service (DoS) attack, of course, as the aim is not to deny anyone access to the service.

The authorities should be worried about this sort of thing, as the current situation, with incomplete computer penetration and a mismatch between the costs of online and paper, make the danger almost unavoidable.

There may be an indication of worry from Lockheed or the authorities: amongst the comments to Peace News’ article there is one supposedly from someone employed by Lockheed to process forms, saying “census workers earn a flat rate no matter how much work we have to do. So all that extra processing work? It doesn’t cost the arms manufacturer guy a penny while I have a shitload more work to do for nothing.”

However, census workers’ terms of employment are published and they are on an hourly rate – other commenters see this as a “Lockheed plant”.

If so, then it could be that people are starting to worry about this mode of protest.