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Census scepticism as privacy comes under threat



The 9 August 2016 is census night in Australia. The Australian government requires every person in the country to provide the Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS) with detailed information about themselves.

Government agents study the long shadows cast by the light of the census. Cartoon by Chris JohnstonThe ABS uses powerful data mining technology to sort through the mountains of information to take a 'snapshot' of the nation. Government departments and researchers rely on this information to guide policy that is targeted at the likely needs of the population.

In the past, and in a time of far less capacity to manipulate datasets, the information has been collected on paper. After a couple of trials at previous censuses however, 2016 sees the ABS roll out a fully online census. And that is not the only change.

Just before Christmas in 2015, the ABS announced some ostensibly innocuous but in fact more far-reaching changes to Census 2016 — namely the retention of names and addresses forever. Since then however, and in the face of substantial criticism, the ABS has backed down. Names and addresses will only be kept until 2020, we are now told, at which point they will be discarded.

Before discarding our names and addresses, the statistician will convert them into a 'linkage key' — a unique numerical identifier for our personal set of information. The key will allow two things.

First, it will allow the ABS or other researchers who use ABS data, to link our census information with other government databases. Secondly, it will allow the ABS to run longitudinal studies on us — it can link our key from 2016 with our data in subsequent censuses.

Despite assurances from the ABS that our privacy is paramount, and an acknowledged need for statistical data to support evidence-based policy making, Australians should exercise healthy scepticism about the state holding our personal data, notably with the provision and retention of our names, and the resulting linkage key. Of concern is that many simply don't see what the fuss is about.

Because the state's request for information is ostensibly so reasonable, it is easy to dismiss privacy concerns as unreasonable. Census data would, for example, help decide whether to build new schools or aged care facilities in a community, based on the community's demographics. This is an important and sensible purpose for government statistics.


"Through this system, the state has removed our individual capacity to establish boundaries between itself and us."


Governments already hold significant amounts of our personal data. In Australia, each state and the Commonwealth have privacy legislation to protect citizens from misuse of our data. As I wrote recently, there is good reason why we agree to share personal information with government. It provides us with access to services and allows us to contribute as engaged citizens. Giving information to a census would be part of this trade off.

Instead the problem is that the state has now developed a system requiring personal information under compulsion of law where the system has increasingly powerful capacity to store, sort, match, and even to predict our lives in fine-grained detail. The system is neither good nor bad — but it certainly has the capacity for far more than mere statistics, and some see it as offering the potential for surveillance.

Through this system, the state has removed our individual capacity to establish boundaries between the state and us. This 'breathing space' would otherwise allow us to be ourselves, guided by our social interactions and value systems, and free to become engaged citizens away from the gaze of the state. This is the nature of privacy.

Government promises to protect our privacy are important, but miss an essential issue with the current arrangements. Once we have given our information, our privacy has already been breached. The state's understanding of 'privacy' suggests that it will protect us from interlopers' misuse of our data without acknowledging that tracking us through our lives is a breach in the first place.

Understandably perhaps, government wishes to capitalise on our data using new data mining technologies. The ABS uses the language of efficiency and public interest in justifying the changes. It even implies that the new online census is environmentally friendly. It may well be that collecting and retaining our names along with our personal information is efficient — but that does not address the foundation question of whether we as citizens retain the privacy that constitutes us as members of a liberal democratic society.

As with Bentham's panopticon, the state may not be looking at us — now — but the systems that the ABS is establishing for this census and beyond give the state the capacity to look at us, at any time. 'Providing new insights where information has previously not been available' by integrating data, as the ABS says, offers entirely new possibilities for our personal information. Lulling the Australian citizenry into compliance enculturates us to giving personal information to the state, and having it tracked and linked. Once this is normalised the possibility for boundaries between state and citizen is radically reduced, with a commensurate increase in state power.

We need to ask whether this is what we want.


Kate GallowayKate Galloway is a legal academic with an interest in social justice.

Topic tags: Kate Galloway, census, privacy



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Existing comments

Identifying details are removed from the data. They serve only long enough to check that the household had been covered. Turning people off supplying data is irresponsible and ignorant. We need the data for many reasons you appear not to understand or even surmise. Journalism students used census data in their business studies courses at the University at which I was a Reference Librarian - same in all such degrees. Unreliable or missing data makes it difficult for needs to be assessed in all areas. Please be informed before influencing readers.

Marjorie Edwards | 29 July 2016  

Marjorie, I think the point that Kate is making is that in the future identifying details will NOT be removed, ever. No one, including Kate, is questioning the value of the unidentifying data, it's link ti named individuals that is being questioned. And it;s not just the use of the data by our current governments that is of concern - it will also be available to any future authoritarian regime, of the left or right, that might mine it for evidence of associations between people it has on its hit list to people it would like to have on the list. Still, it might be possible to demonstrate that the advantages might outweigh the disadvantages. The present problem is that this has not been clearly discussed or debated in public with the result that the integrity of this census might be put at risk.

Ginger Meggs | 30 July 2016  

Marjorie, you are absolutely incorrect. You do know that all the complaints are because things have changed, right? The personal information is kept for 4 years, but it will still be kept as a key that can be matched at will. And if the law is changed to allow them to do more with the data, well, they've already got it, so there's no way to protest at that point.

David | 30 July 2016  

Let us consider that many of us do not agree with current policy and laws which harm aboriginal and asylum seeker people in our midst. There may come a time when the repression and brutality is such that we choose to move from lawful opposition to another position. We do not need to assist a repressive state by providing them with information which they can use against us. Look at the current mob in Canberra- how many of them would you trust to put the individual citizen ahead of self interest or party loyalty? I am reminded of my Dutch Mother In law who said that on the day that the Nazis invaded Holland, they went to each Gemeente (local Govt) where every household and every person therein was recorded- a gift for hostile forces. Hostile forces can come from within. Our freedom is a fragile thing not to be lightly thrown to the wolves.

pamela | 31 July 2016  

Marjorie Edwards, I an appreciate your call for accurate data, but already the data people supply in the census is suspect. Some examples: I have a friend who always lies about how many bedrooms in the house (“When we are invaded they will want to put soldiers in the spare rooms”). Others claim to be Aboriginal to boost the numbers for funding. Others make up names of religions. Apart from the census, there are many other organisations that ask us for data and we imagine we are obliged to comply. One online set-up required my date of birth, and, as usual, I supplied a false one. Later that year, to my surprise, I received a birthday greeting from an acquaintance who had seen my supposed date of birth published on the website! So much for privacy. And so it goes on.

Janet | 31 July 2016  

Kate, that horse has already left the barn. The notion that governments can't (and don't) already tap our personal data to an almost unimaginable level of detail is naive.

David Healy | 31 July 2016  

Fr. Brennan's article a welcome balance to what appears a witch hunt

Mary Bendeich | 31 July 2016  

The move to online is interesting. These days the assumption is made by Government that everyone has access. I am often very surprised by how many for a variety of reasons will simply declare the whole process too hard. This of course will lead to the information being inaccurate and it will be those already marginalized who will not be counted. I can see no reason why names should be linked to the information.

Margaret McDonald | 31 July 2016  

This is an extremely sensible, non-alarmist article. I think there are supposedly 'simple' questions, such as those on ethnicity and religion, which should not be compulsory. Why? Because at certain times and in certain countries, some quite recently, people have died for belonging to certain groups e.g. during the Lebanese Civil War and even more recently in Sri Lanka. Think it can't happen here? Look at Nazi Germany or the former Yugoslavia. A long shot? Sure but not impossible. Also look at countries with 'racial status' like British India or apartheid South Africa. Anyone like to be 'classified' as Anglo-Indian (Eurasian) or Coloured in either of those two? Some current Australian residents still bear scars from those times and places. Statistics are not God. People - real ordinary people not bureaucrats - need to be in control here. I am not sure they are. Civil liberties are valuable.

Edward Fido | 31 July 2016  

If people think the census is bad, they should look at MyHealthRecord. Potentially it has far more intrusive data, is far less well protected and is updated far more frequently than the census databases. The census people are trying very hard to keep data secure. Health is trying very hard to make health data more easily accessible. And it seems they want to make the system compulsory for all Australians. IMHO, the census is a distraction in comparison.

Bernard Robertson-Dunn | 31 July 2016  

a point not quite understood is that data retention legislation will capture the entire data set, so anyone using the net to submit has already handed it all to the government-fully identified the ABS is almost irrelevant to the vulnerability we already now have to total de-anonymisation and tracking capacity. the ISPs cant just capture metadata but also content and IP addresses

marcus wigan | 31 July 2016  

If names and addresses are destroyed there will still remain the "linkage key" being the unique numerical identifier for our personal set of information. For such an identifier to be unique it must be based on a lot more than my name. Provided the algorithm's underlying information is on another database it will be easy to recalculate and hence use this identifier to link the databases. Some which I suspect will have enormous appeal to a Government are the ATO and Centacare databases. I might be tempted to accept what is being said if I trusted my Government, but the evidence against this is overwhelming. And let's not think about the consequences when the transition from democracy to plutocracy is further down the track (the big corporates will be eager to access linked data for marketing purposes),

Mike | 31 July 2016  

My take is the "State" is all of us in solidarity. Any attempt to cheat the State is cheating everyone. Sure, there may be highly remote dangers in all this for privacy, but privacy is second order issue to the common good. What is important to protect us is on both fronts are a strong democracy (which we obviously have given recent election results !) and strong, independent social organisations, such as Churches, prepared to speak out.

Eugene | 31 July 2016  

The ABS has been conducting the Census for over a century without any issues so why now all the fear mongering??? If you have so called Loyalty Cards or use the Internet to access goods and service s or buy items 'on line' then your personal data goes 'on line' and can be and is mined for information about your lifestyle , spending habits etc . There is very strict legislation governing what the ABS can do with the information it collects on us. Without the information the ABS collects Governments and other organizations can not provide society with the goods and services it needs to operate. .

Gavin | 31 July 2016  

Those who don't study history repeat the mistakes of the past. Let's NOT get too paranoid about data. The electronic age is on us and data can be freely obtained by those who wish us ill. It is also a force for "good". As a TPI, (wounded war veteran) I am totally dependent on medical expertise for life. Cross-fed data is essential. I may not be in my home state when I need urgent cardiac or other medical help. The lesson of the French revolution is "l'Etat c'est moi". The bureaucracy is the State. Kings, Queens and dictators rise and fall. Politicians are NOT the issue. Significant changes may be made, but the "State" is NOT any individual. The 'Arab Spring' showed the power of the people. The results of this has been millions of Arabs/Muslims have 'invaded' the West and we have not yet come to terms with what this means. Ultimately it will force a redistribution of finance and resources and create a new understanding that we cannot, in this modern world, continue to exploit third world countries so we can bask in the comfort of cheap goods. We are paying the price of exploitation in past decades.

Karl Cameron-Jackson | 31 July 2016  

I have many reservations about the changes. Firstly online is not secure and China can tell you all about that. Secondly ancestry, religion, race, wealth are all there to use against people if an evil regime is in power one day. Census is important, so why do this now? What is the real reason behind these changes?

Cate | 31 July 2016  

Cate, I can understand your concerns. Going on line now to reply to your post means that I am venerable to having my computer hacked , that is a risk I am prepared to take. We go on line to do our banking and pay bills, but we assume that the Bank site is protected. With the Census, the system is most likely 'encrypted' ( I am not a computer nerd!) as is the case with any secure web site, so it is about as safe as it can be. As I wrote before, if we want government services provided, we have to provide the data base for its efficient planning and delivery. I am not concerned about the Census, nor should you be!

Gavin | 01 August 2016  

I have no problem with the data being collected and stored. The census provides a service essential to planning and good governance. However, I do take issue with the apparent casualness with which deidentification spoken of by the ABS. How long is my name kept together with my other information? Is there not a good opportunity for hackers to find out who I am, where I live and possibly my email address? Can my identity be stolen, in fact? I've seen two different ABS representatives say lightly that the ABS has been doing this for years, they know how to protect our privacy - but, in case they haven't notices, things have changed in the cyberworld!

Joan Seymour | 05 August 2016  

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