Addressing the Census 2016: A little privacy please?

Aug 4, 2016
Reading Time: 3 minutes
Written by Jennifer Wang

The Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS) conducts a census every 5 years in what is arguably the largest national collection of statistical information and data. The first national census began in 1911 and our most recent was held on 9 August 2011, costing over $440 million. This prompted the then Abbott government to consider axing the census in a bid to save money.

However nothing so far can compare to the public outcry of 2016. With less than a week left until the census date, Australians have flooded social media with their concerns over recent census changes. Garnering huge momentum, the trending hashtag #censusfail looks like it might even take down #TheBachelor2016.

Changes to the 2016 census

Unlike previous years, a significant factor fuelling public concern is how long the census data will be kept for.

In December 2015, the ABS made a surprising announcement that information collected from the 2016 census will now be retained for a period of 4 years instead of the usual 18 months as they have done in previous years. This includes information regarding age, gender, income, and religion  which would be matched against other administrative databases held by the government. The sudden nature of this decision and vague justification provided for the retention of data has fuelled online speculation whether there is an ulterior agenda behind the extended data storage.

Legal invasion of privacy?

Under the Census and Statistics Act, the census may legally request for a person to answer questions necessary to obtain statistical information. However Bill McLennan, a former ABS statistician who was also heavily involved in the rewriting of the Act warns that the 2016 census will give Australian citizens “no control over how their personal information is handed”. He argues that the compulsory collection and retention of individual names is a violation of personal privacy as there is no statistical purpose for the collection of names.

Others have voiced similar concerns over the implications of providing personal information on racial background and religion, given it could be matched and used alongside other government records without the individual’s knowledge or permission.

The online shift

In contrast to previous years, the census will not be automatically sent via paper forms to every household. Instead, white envelopes containing a 12 digit pin code will be sent to the address which will then allow the user access to fill out the census online. Under the Census and Statistics Act, there is a legal obligation by the statistician and officers to protect the secrecy of information and data collected. Cautions regarding the cyber security risks involved have been issued by a number of experts, with Liam Pomfret of the Australian Privacy Foundation describing the decision as “naive”.

The very real question posed by the online system is whether the ABS is sufficiently aware of the strong possibility for data breaches. Vice President of cyber-security firm Forcepoint, Guy Eilon expressed that individuals providing personal information online run the risk of exposing that information in “many ways, no different” to posting a status on Facebook.

Consequences for boycotting

Despite the growing fears that there will be a widespread boycott of the 2016 census, the ABS warns that individuals who choose not to return or fill out a census form face a fine of $180 per day of non-completion. Furthermore individuals who give misleading or deceptive responses face fines of $1800 under the Census and Statistics Act.

The legal perspective

At the heart of the #census2016 debate is the issue of individual privacy and fears that this privacy cannot be adequately protected by the law that currently governs the census. The existing law around this issue requires a higher level of transparency and clarity to facilitate active and willing participation by the public.

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