May 4, 2006

Canadian online census discriminates against FOSS

Author: Bruce Byfield

In 2006, Canadians can fill out their census forms online for the first time -- but not if they use GNU/Linux, or are free software advocates who prefer not to install a proprietary version of Java.

The situation raises questions of open access to government that are familiar to most of the free and open source software (FOSS) communities, all the more so because other government services are implementing systems with the same limitations. Yet none of those whom we contacted at the Census Help Line, Statistics Canada, or Bell Canada, the contractor that oversees the development of security for the site, seemed concerned about the issues. Nor were they willing to say much when the issues were raised.

The online census site is supported by Secure Channel, a new set of unified backend services developed by Public Works and Government Services Canada. Security for the services is contracted to a consortium of companies led by Bell Security Solutions, a division of Bell Canada. Members of the consortium include Cisco Systems, Juniper Networks, and Entrust. According to one page, by using Secure Channel the census page offers bi-directional encryption using SSL and 1,024-bit Public Key Infrastructure, and logs the IP addresses from which the system is used. The page also assures Canadians that the system is housed on an isolated network, although it doesn't mention that the fact the system is a Web server negates this advantage.

On the fact page for Secure Channel, one of the benefits of the system listed is "accessibility to government programs." For the on-line census page, however, accessibility is limited to Windows 98, NT, ME, or XP, and Mac users with Safari 1.2.4 with webkit 125.5.7. In addition, users must have at least version 1.4.2_3 of a Java Virtual Machine on Windows, or version 1.4.2_5 on the Mac. If users do not meet these requirements, as they begin the process, they are redirected to a page that informs them that "Your browser does not meet the minimum requirements to access this site." The page refers them to a second page that gives detailed instructions about how to download the required software. Alternatively, the page suggests that users fill out the hardcopy version of the census form that was mailed to them.

The site gives no explanation about who selected these requirements, or how. In practice, they probably exclude thousands of users on Windows with old machines and no knowledge of how to upgrade or what Java is. As we quickly found out, they definitely exclude those using a variety of GNU/Linux distributions and recent versions of Mozilla, Epiphany, Firefox, Konqueror, and Opera, even with suitable versions of Sun Java installed. Nor does changing the browser identification in Konqueror or using about:config to change the general.useragent settings in Firefox have any effect.

After determining that the site is unusable with GNU/Linux, I phoned the Census Help Line and politely explained the problem. After consulting with someone else, the anonymous woman who answered my call returned to tell me, "You can't use it with that operating system."

"So, in other words, my access to the government is limited by which software I use?" I asked.

"Yes," I guess that is correct," she said after a brief hesitation." Then she offered to let me talk to a supervisor, and I agreed.

When I repeated the problem, the supervisor had obviously never heard of GNU/Linux or Linux, and possibly not of operating systems, either. She thought I was referring to something called "Winex." After I corrected her, she suggested that I use another computer, perhaps at a friend's or relative's house. I said that I thought that, as a citizen, I should have the right to access government web pages on my own computer.

"Linux is not one that a lot of people use," she said. I explained that GNU/Linux probably had at least as many users as the Mac, and she replied, "It's just the way that the system is encrypted. It doesn't recognize Linux as an operating system."

Sensing my continued skepticism, she offered to take my name and phone number, and have someone get back to me. 24 hours later, when this story was filed, the call had still not been returned.

Meanwhile, I called the general line for Statistics Canada, the government organization that conducts the census. The help agent who answered heard me out, then went to consult his superior. Returning, he suggested that I try another operating system. When I suggested that the whole point of the Internet was that it was operating system independent, he put me on hold again. When he came back, he explained that the lack of wider support was due to the fact that, "because of time and money, we can't work with all the different web browsers and operating systems."

I replied that GNU/Linux support should not be a major undertaking, considering the software and technologies involved. After all, Secure Channel had been developed over several years, so lack of time and money were hardly issues.

Finally, the help agent gave me the number for the electronics product help-line. The man who answered my call seemed more concerned about how I had got the number than about answering my questions, but eventually took my number and promised to someone would call me.

That's another call I am still waiting for.

Deciding to approach my inquiries from a different angle, I contacted Mohammed Nakhooda, the Media Relations officer for Bell Canada. When he got back to me, his main concern was to give a formal statement. "Bell Canada is extremely pleased and proud to be part of this truly innovative endeavor spearheaded by the government of Canada," he said, adding later, "We truly believe this is a truly groundbreaking project."

In between these statements, Nakhooda explained Bell Canada's involvement with the online census site. But when I asked about technical details, such as the lack of GNU/Linux support, he said, "In terms of getting detailed in terms of technology, we just don't do that for our security clients." Asked whether someone else was available to speak with, he told me, "Nobody else would provide you with any other comment." He finished by suggesting that I contact Statistics Canada, which brought me full circle.

As a last effort, I used the online form at Public Works and Government Services Canada to state my concerns. The next morning, I received a reply suggesting I contact Statistics Canada. Having been sent back to the beginning a second time, my efforts to find answers reached a dead end.

The Canadian census ends May 16. However, the issue is not about to go away. A quick survey shows that payment mechanisms on the Revenue Canada site have the same limitations. So does epass, the online identity manager that allows users secured access to enhanced government services. What's more, considering that Secure Channel is intended to unify all online services provided by the Canadian government, probably the issue will soon be even more widespread.

If you are a Canadian user of FOSS, you may want to contact -- and educate -- your local Member of Parliament about the situation. You might also contact the Census Help Line (1-877-594-2006), Statistics Canada (1-800-263-8863), and Public Works and Government Services Canada (1-800-622-6232) to state your concerns. If enough people do, then maybe the Canadian government will realize that all residents have the right to access online services, not just those who use the approved (proprietary) software.

And if you live in another country, look around. The chances are that something similar is happening near you.

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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