May 15, 2006

Canada census developers add Linux support

Author: Bruce Byfield

Statistics Canada has responded to concerned free software users by adding GNU/Linux support to the online census. While other free operating systems remain unsupported and issues about security and policy remain, this response is an important first step in ensuring open access to Canadian government online services.

As often happens in high tech, the response was left to developers, who have been working overtime for much of the past week to add and test support for GNU/Linux. On May 12, I had a conference call with Anil Aror, Director General and 2006 Census Manager; Graeme Gilmour, Manager, 2006 Census Internet Response Task; George Kriger, Chief, Infrastructure, IT Security Services; and Lise Duquet, Assistant Director, Systems Development Division, who is also the liaison with Secure Channel, the back end system for all government online services. In a cordial conversation, they discussed their efforts to supply GNU/Linux support and invited me to log in to their test bed to assist their efforts. Although I was unable to log in successfully from Debian 3.1 or Fedora Core 5 using Firefox 1.5 and Sun Java 1.5.0_06 on May 12, I was able to do so on May 13.

According to Kriger, other GNU/Linux distributions now known to work with the online census include SUSE 10 and Kubuntu with Firefox 1.0.7. An attempt to access the site using Konqueror was unsuccessful. Asked about other free operating systems, Kriger says, "FreeBSD is the next on my list." Whether FreeBSD support will be enabled by the May 16 deadline for submitting census information is unknown.

The Statistics Canada team was aware of the workaround outlined in a comment to NewsForge's first article about online census issues, but found in its own testing that the instructions did not work with some distributions. Although challenged by the brief span in which the Canadian census is conducted, as well as the constant concerns for security and confidentiality, Gilmour says that the development team wanted to "present at least an acceptable alternative" for GNU/Linux users. "It's our best effort at this point," Duquet adds.

The census's version of Entrust's TruePass, which provides public key infrastructure cryptography for the online census, does not support GNU/Linux. However, Duquet says, "in our testings environment we've modified our browser check to allow Linux."

Gilmour and Krige stress that GNU/Linux is supported only from within recent versions of Firefox and Sun Java. At this point, neither other Web browsers or other implementation of Java, such as Blackdown or GNU Compiler for Java, are known to work.

They also stress that GNU/Linux desktop users may need to make some tweaks to get their systems to work with the census site. Krige suggests adding a link to the file in Java to the plugin directory for Firefox. The location of this directory varies with the distribution. In Fedora Core 5, the location is /usr/lib/firefox-, while in Debian, it is /usr/lib/mozilla-firefox/plugins, and in SUSE it is /opt/MozillaFirefox/lib/plugins.

If users still cannot connect, Gilmour suggests clearing Firefox's cache to ensure that there is no record of an earlier or unsupported version of Java being accessed.

These steps, Gilmour says, "should not trouble your average Linux user."

At this late stage in the census, Duquet stresses, this information won't be available if you phone the Census Help Desk. However, the development team wanted to make sure that some instructions for GNU/Linux were available for those who wanted them. "I'd like to be able to say that we took your concerns and are doing something about it," Gilmour said to me during the conference call on May 12.

While concerned about the technical issues raised by free software users, Gilmour describes the online census as "a pretty bold move for an exercise that every Canadian must take part in. It's the first time, we're learning from it, we're getting better, and we're being as responsive as we can."

Gilmour adds that, as of May 12, more than a million households have completed the census online. "Tell me any other application in the country or the world for that matter that can say the same."

During the conference call, the development team mentioned that the online census's use of TruePass is unique, and not shared with the rest of Secure Channel.

During the call and subsequent email exchanges we did not discuss the policy issues mentioned in NewsForge's second article on the Canadian online census. It is also unclear whether the report in the last day or two on the Vancouver Linux Users Group's mail list that users can bypass the validation check by jumping to the page following the check is the result of relaxing the browser check to ensure GNU/Linux support or has been a weakness from the first.

Canadians in general and free software advocates in particular deserve answers to these unresolved issues. However, while they continue to press for action, perhaps they should also take time to express their thanks for the fact that the developers at Statistics Canada are going out of their way to meet the needs of GNU/Linux users in what must be a concentrated and stressful time for them.

Bruce Byfield is a course designer and instructor, and a computer journalist who writes regularly for NewsForge, and IT Manager's Journal.


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