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Statistics Canada’s excuse for database outage not adding up: former chief

Wayne Smith is pictured in Ottawa on Friday, Feb. 11, 2011. Mr. Smith is not buying the government’s excuse for its recent database outage.

Sean Kilpatrick/THE CANADIAN PRESS

Statistics Canada's online database crashed for the second time in two weeks, failing on one of the federal government's most important days – the unveiling of the budget.

The latest data outage started this Wednesday. The failure occurred just days after Statscan's online database of economic and social information, also known as CANSIM, suffered from a week-long blackout.

Statscan said its website has been "impacted by a vulnerability that affected computer servers" and that it continues to work with Ottawa's centralized IT department Shared Services Canada to restore "a secure infrastructure."

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But the country's former chief statistician, Wayne Smith, is not buying the government's excuse.

"What they have said so far doesn't make any sense. They talked about trying to protect confidential information; well, there is no confidential information on CANSIM," said Mr. Smith, who quit last year over concerns with Shared Services Canada.

"They say the site has been hacked. But what does it mean? Does that mean that the CANSIM data has somehow been polluted? If so, they should be informing users," he said.

Statscan said CANSIM data has neither been lost nor altered in any way.

Under the previous Harper government, the federal government's technology services were consolidated into Shared Services Canada. Statscan transferred its hardware and staff to Shared Services in 2011, and since then, Mr. Smith said there have been problems.

"Prior to Shared Services being involved, lengthy outages on CANSIM or the website were unheard of," he said. "They haven't been maintaining that hardware. The result is, as time goes on, these outages are becoming more and more frequent."

The major website failure started March 10. That day, Canada's closely followed monthly labour report was released, forcing some researchers to rely on Statscan's twitter feed for jobs data.

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Later, it emerged that both Statscan and the Canada Revenue Agency's websites were shut down as a precautionary measure.

At the time, government officials said vulnerabilities were found within a Web tool used by both websites, and said that personal information had not been compromised.

CRA's website and Statscan's main site were restored. But the in-depth data on jobs, wages and other economic information were not available online for at least seven days, slowing down work for economists, banks and researchers.

"As we bring our services back online, we may discover vulnerabilities which slow the process to resume all online services," Statscan said.

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Economics Reporter

Rachelle Younglai is The Globe and Mail's economics reporter. More

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