What’s wrong with the 2016 Census and what can we do?

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This article is published by Rosie Williams under the CC by 4.0 licence.
Update: #CensusFail trended for the first time on day one of the campaign (Sat 23/07). Will be interesting to see where this goes.

Those who do not remember their past are condemned to repeat their mistakes. (George Santayana)

In the week before Christmas 2015 a huge change to the Australian Census was announced. At a time of such distraction and with so little to herald it, most Australian media failed to report the changes, leaving Australians uninformed and unprepared.

If you are anything like me, you’ve probably thought of the Census as a benign survey collecting data to inform policies on everything from health to housing. You probably didn’t even realise that the Census was compulsory, nor imagined a situation where you would feel the need to question whether you should consider avoiding it. Likewise, most Australians are probably not aware that we are required to fill in the survey under pain of a fine of $180… per day.

In this day and age where our search engine companies know more about us than God himself, it seems that the Australian Bureau of Statistics is feeling a bit left out. To remedy this concern for their ‘reputation as a premium data integration provider‘, the ABS would like a bit of help from us. Specifically, the ABS would like us to provide them our names and addresses to be kept in one form or another for anywhere between four years or permanently (depending on what they can get us to swallow). Providing our names and addresses along with all that previously anonymous information about our heritage, religion, income, health, education etc makes it much easier for the ABS to link that data at person level to other data sets that do contain our name.

Specifically, the ABS has stated (paragraph 23) future data integration projects could include the use of “FaHCSIA welfare payments data, Centrelink unemployment benefits data, Medicare and Pharmaceutical Benefits Scheme data, Australian Immunisation Register, the AEC electoral role, and other nationally important datasets.”

Just in case you were thinking they had put all this on the table for our informed consideration, the ABS has also stated (paragraph 21) that “While we may not know all of the potential future uses of all the datasets the ABS holds, the retention of some or all personal identifiers would enable us to be in a position to meet those future needs as they arise.” It’s good to know they are planning for all eventualities and will have our names and addresses for well, anything they decide to do with it really!

But don’t worry, the venerable ABS did its research before implementing the biggest change to privacy in the history of this country, it asked a focus group what they thought of its plan. Realising that trust in their brand was at stake here, the ABS asked a focus group (paragraph 12) what they thought about four options for what could be done with our names and addresses and the responses of that focus group have been used to determine Census policy for every man, woman and child going forward in perpetuity. If you find this approach a little unsettling, you may feel better to know that the ABS did carry out a review of privacy risks but instead of having this done independently (which didn’t work out so well for them the first time round), they kept it in house this time. Feeling better now?

If you are wondering why all the fuss over names and addresses, you only need to look at the changing political climate in Australia (not to mention globally) in relation to race and religion. With a swing to the far right and candidates winning seats off the back of platforms specifically targeting racial and religious minorities, it is imperative Australians consider the potential implications of allowing our government to demand heritage and ethnicity along with our names and addresses for every Australian household.

 

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In case anyone is wondering whether this kind of data has been abused in the past, you need only look to the biggest human rights abuse known to humanity and the key role played by the German census in wiping out the Jewish population and targeting of other minorities. Yet here we are in Australia, amid public calls to introduce laws targeting specific groups and we are about to cooperate with “the most significant invasion of privacy ever perpetrated on Australians by the ABS,” according to former Australian Statistician Bill McLennan.

The ABS likes to make a lot of the fact that they don’t intend to publish our names and addresses along with out other Census information. The point is the government itself has this information and will be using it to create data linkage projects of undeclared and unlimited scope and number. If you couple this cornucopia of information with the meta data retained on every Australian connected to a communications device (just incase any of us end up being terrorists or pedophiles) you begin to see the terrifying amount of power that provides the government over us as citizens.

Add to this the fact that both the retention of meta data and the de-anonymisation of the Census were introduced while the agency charged with defending our privacy was almost entirely de-funded and it raises more questions than answers. The Office of the Australian Information Commissioner has a statutory role to sign off on data linkage projects yet the Abbott government was so hostile to its very existence, it brought in legislation to abolish the agency, leaving the Information Commissioner working from home. Unable to get that legislation through the parliament, the government returned a small amount of funding to the agency at MYEFO to be used by the agency to track welfare cheats, with full funding only returned to the agency at the last budget in May, only after invasive and permanent changes were made to our right to privacy. I don’t think it is any accident that both radical changes to privacy of Australian citizens were brought in during the OAIC’s period of de-funding.

I think it is important to get the message out to the public that this year’s Census is very different. Given the interest shown on Twitter in past days, it appears many others agree.

Things we can do:


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