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Census scepticism as privacy comes under threat

  • 01 August 2016


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.

The 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