Census spies

March 6 is census night here in New Zealand, and this morning Radio NZ reported that 1.7 million people have already completed their forms online. Time to do the same, I thought.

A few weeks ago I posted about the Lightbeam add-on which, you’ll recall, highlights all the third-party sites that the website you’re visiting connects to. I showed how a single visit to the news website Stuff secretly hooked me up to 69 other sites — many of them specialising in advertising and data collection. Web spies, in short.

The news report emphasised security was the watchword of the online census site. If you don’t complete the form in one sitting, you can’t save it and come back later. Reason: security. If you make a mistake in an earlier section, you can’t go back and correct it. Reason: security. Surely, I thought, the census site would be free of web spies.

I was wrong.

Starting with an empty browser and a fresh instance of Lightbeam, I opened a new tab and visited www.census.govt.nz:

Back in the Lightbeam tab however, I was surprised to find the site had made a dozen behind-the-scenes connections:

The circle in the centre is the census site. The triangles connecting to it like a cluster of satellites are the third-party sites: 12 in all.

Moving the cursor over the triangles highlights each satellite’s address. Here I’ve zoomed in a little and animated all those connections:

And here they are in list form:


Some are no doubt support sites providing things like fancy fonts, but what are googleads, adservice.google.com and two links to the notorious ad-serving company DoubleClick doing there? On a Government website (which doesn’t have any advertising), and a census website at that?

Slightly alarmed, I continued and clicked the button to begin my census. That took to the online census portal where I was asked to enter the access code I’d been sent in the mail:

Once I’d done that, the Lightbeam tab showed three additions; the online portal,

which connected through Google Analytics to the main site,

and a new connection on the mothersite:

Yep, another ad server.

Entering my access code and beginning the actual census process added no new connections, but I was already a little disturbed by what I’d found. Why is New Zealand’s census connecting to local and foreign ad servers?

More to come this afternoon …

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