The Unanonymous Census: Privacy Changes in 2016

May 26, 2016
Reading Time: 2 minutes
Written by Zachary Swan

Every 5 years, over 20 million Australians are required to complete a survey to answer a set of personal questions known as the Census. This is required in order for Australia to have a national set of data illustrating the lives of its citizens. This is the pattern Australians are used to.

However, aware of it or not, this year, data collected will lose its value of anonymity; participants names and addresses will be in the possession of the ABS. This will be the first time the Australian Bureau of Statistics (‘ABS’) will take this approach.

The change has alarmed many, going so far as calling for a withdrawal from completing the surveys. The question remains to circulate: What can the government do with this information?

The ABS has responded to this by explaining that without this information, the ABS has been somewhat limited in its decisions from data collection. The justifications behind this action are aimed at a better ability for data to provide insights into areas such as employment and education.

In an ever growing digitalised society, the concern about protections for our information is heightened. In particular, the ability for participants to complete the survey online this year, leaves room for potential privacy breaches of personal information. This only fuels the urges for hackers and cyber criminals in a time where IT security can be limited in protecting privacy.

A breach of the law?

The principles set out in the section 14 of the Privacy Act 1988 (Cth) does not impose an obligation on institutions and/or organisations to notify individuals whose personal details have been compromised. The act only requires that the institution/organisation takes ‘reasonable’ steps to protect any personal information collected. The Australian Law Reform Commission (‘ALRC’) has suggested reforms to reflect an appropriate data breach notification process in order to protect identity theft and further data breaches.

Read more about Australia’s new privacy laws OR about digital privacy reforms to better understand privacy and the law in the digital era.

The ARLC has further looked into the possibility of serious evasions of privacy in the digital era. A tort law for invasion of privacy has not yet been developed in Australia. Despite much case law discussion on this issue, no court has recognised such a law. The general assumption then is that the future development of the law in this area is quite uncertain. It has been suggested that the law is yet to be developed in such a way that Australia can recognise an action for a breach of privacy.

This move could very well damage the accuracy of information given by the Australian public to the ABS. With a fear of personal information being exploited, there is a possibility that data will not be entered honestly due to distrust of the survey system. Overall, legally, it seems to be unclear about the penalties that can imposed if negative consequences arise due the identifiable data being collected this year.

Let us know your thoughts on the privacy changes to the census! #lawpath or @lawpath.

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