The government services minister has taken back his claim that a cyber attack similar to the one used to bring down the 2016 Census had crashed the MyGov website.
On Monday morning the government’s online portal for government services was inaccessible as 95,000 people — many of them newly unemployed as a result of the coronavirus pandemic — tried to login to their MyGov accounts and register for Centrelink payments.
During a press conference on Monday afternoon, Stuart Robert said the crash was a distributed denial of service (DDoS) attack, rather than the result of the influx of people trying to use the site.
“MyGov has not been offline, it’s simply suffered from a distributed denial of service attack this morning,” he said.
A DDoS attack is an attempt to make an online service unavailable by overwhelming it with traffic from multiple sources. It was the method that was responsible for bringing down the Census website in 2016.
READ MORE: Tom Burton: five lessons from #CensusFail
Less than two hours later, Robert corrected himself, revealing that 95,000 users had attempted to use the site at once, well above the maximum 55,000 users the site can handle. The load had triggered a DDoS alarm as the system thought it was under attack.
“The DDoS alarms showed no evidence of a specific attack today,” he told parliament.
Robert said MyGov had previously been able to handle just 6000 users at a time, but this was upgraded to 55,000 over the weekend.
Opposition leader Anthony Albanese described the incident as an “incompetence attack”.
Robert told 2GB radio on Tuesday that he had not waited for confirmation of a cyber attack before announcing it to the public.
“I should have probably waited for the investigation before jumping the gun and believing the warnings. The warnings just showed the massive influx that came into our system,” he admitted.
The crash came as people flooded Centrelink offices around Australia, following Sunday’s announcement that thousands of businesses would close their doors from Monday.
The government’s second stimulus package — also announced on Sunday — included a range of welfare measures for those who have been put out of the job due to the closures.
An extra 5000 Services Australia staff will be brought on to help deliver the expanded welfare services.
Please consider the health and safety of our customers and staff and do not visit our service centres unless there’s a critical need for you to be there.
— Services Australia (@ServicesGovAU) March 23, 2020
Services Australia has urged the public to avoid their offices.
“Please consider the health and safety of our customers and staff and do not visit our service centres unless there’s a critical need for you to be there,” the agency tweeted on Monday.
“If you don’t currently get an income support payment and you need help because you’ve lost your job or had your income reduced, please start your claim online.
“If you’re already getting a payment that is eligible for the Economic Support Payment or the Coronavirus Supplement, you do not need to do anything, you’ll get paid automatically. Please do not call or visit us.
“If you need to provide proof of identity and you’re in self-isolation or feeling unwell we can do this over the phone — but please defer until later if you can. We urge you not to come into our service centres if you’re unwell.”
Shadow minister for government services Bill Shorten and shadow minister for families and social services Linda Burney have called on Robert to ensure Centrelink services are working “when Australians need them most”.
“Many families, workers and business owners who have never accessed social security before are being forced to by the financial effects of the coronavirus. People should not have to wait weeks to access these vital payments,” they said in a statement.
“But at this hour of need Australians are having to grapple with inadequate service, online glitches, and a lack of planning to deal with demand at Centrelink shopfronts.
“Around the nation there are queues around the block at Centrelink offices as first-time social security recipients are told they can only get a Customer Reference Number by going into shopfronts in person. And online myGov has once again crashed despite demand being entirely foreseeable.”