The EFA has established a Data Ethics Working Group to fight for your privacy

This week, The Mandarin reported on David Kalisch’s push to use information gained during last year’s census (under questionable legal and governance processes) to join the data held on us by different government agencies into a panoptic data integration projects. Colmar Brunton who were contracted to carry out focus groups to figure out how to sell this scheme to the public described this project as making a ‘movie’ of your life.

Census data is not collected for the purpose of administering a specific service to us and it can not be used for law enforcement purposes as is the case with administrative data. It is collected to create statistics only, which is why it has a specific Act (the Census and Statistics Act) that the government must put through parliament if it wants to change how census data is used.

Forcing our name, address and birth date from us under pain of unlimited fines to create a key to mix our census information with administrative data for research and/or law enforcement is actually the biggest change to the census in it’s entire history. I wrote about it here based on former ABS Head Dennis Trewin’s comments when he decided against the very same proposition ten years ago.

You may notice at this point that the changes to the census that occurred in 2016 were implemented without the consent of parliament. According to former Heads of the ABS it isn’t actually legal to do this but the government did it anyway, all the while wondering out loud why the people aware of this were making such a fuss. As Stephen Easton reports on the data integration seminar, the #CensusFail campaign (which protested this very plan) was characterised as a ‘media beat-up’ and attendees at the seminar hosting David Kalisch were criticised for failing to come to the defence of the ABS and argue the benefits of data integration during #CensusFail.

To his credit, Kalisch did point out in his closing speech what a closed shop the pro-data integration community is in hosting costly 3 hour seminars boasting tickets at $380 which obviously excludes anyone not earning a considerable income from participation. Kalisch is right to point to the lack of pro-active engagement by researchers and data custodians with the general public on the issue of data integration but given that this is the ABS’s program, it is unclear why the ABS isn’t funding the outreach it wants others in the data ecosystem to do?

During the seminar, contempt for the issues that led to the census boycott was the prevalent theme. Refusal of the ABS or the pro-data integration community to take any responsibility for the breach of public trust or to even acknowledge the issues that led to the boycott shows that this community has learned nothing at all. You can read my post-live tweeting of the videos here.

Despite earning a Parliamentary Inquiry resulting in a ReportRecommendations & Additional Comments which roundly criticised the ABS on multiple fronts including the decisions which #CensusFail protested such as:

  • failing to engage major stakeholders & media in the profoundly significant decision to de-anonymise the census;
  • mis-informing the public (and media) that de-anonymising the census did not constitute a significant change;
  • opting to avoid an independent Privacy Impact Assessment (in order to avoid taking seriously any of the criticisms that ironically enough led to the boycott);
  • failing to adequately govern the online census from a technical perspective;

Jenny Gordon of the Productivity Commission had only this to say of #CensusFail:

To which Anna Johnston (former NSW Deputy Privacy Commissioner) replied:

As the person who first shared my concerns about the de-anonymisation of the Census with journalist Peter Martin, resulting in the first two critical articles in the mainstream media, I can tell Jenny Gordon as any activist can, that getting the media (generally) to understand complex issues like the risk of re-identification or the issues that will stem from joining administrative data on every Australian is a significant challenge. The fact that the media so readily understood the issues is a credit to their expertise but also indicates that the government still has very little respect for the intelligence of the community and what they can get past us.

If the government thinks civil society has forgotten #CensusFail then they need to reconsider. Digital rights group Electronic Frontiers Australia has just set up a working group dedicated to ‘data ethics’ in preparation to respond to the implementation of the census plans and other issues (think robodebt, big data) where our data is used in ways that do not respect the rights or needs of the public.

It’s over a year now since the 2016 census and for those who need a refresher, the reason the census blew up into such a contentious issue is because it is no longer going to be used as a census as such but as a way to create a completely different animal.

When the government decided to ‘de-anonymise’ the census what they were doing was using information they claim is needed for them to produce statistics (our name, address and DOB) to string together multiple other administrative datasets. Your tax data will be cleaved to your health data which will be cleaved to your education data which will be cleaved to your Centrelink data, and so on. You only have to look at robodebt to understand the implications of this kind of data integration can have for the public.

And this does not even begin to consider the risks to individual privacy that come into play when data is integrated or joined with other datasets. Late last year this risk was amply demonstrated when the government in its very immature desire to demonstrate the value of open data, published 30 years of our longitudinal Medicare and Pharmaceutical Benefits Scheme data for 10% of the Australian population for free on

This data was supposed to be anonymous but this ‘anonymity’ was easily reversed by Melbourne University researchers. You will be pleased to know that upon being informed of their inadequate anonymisation, rather than hold the agencies that screwed the pooch on your most sensitive data to account, the Attorney-General introduced a new law to retrospectively criminalise the research that identified the breach!

The thing is, when it comes to anonymising a data set, the more data points you add to a dataset on each individual, the easier it becomes to figure out the individual behind each data point. With each new dataset you ‘integrate’ (link) makes it much easier to know who the data is about and this makes being confident that what is considered an anonymous dataset today will still be anonymous next week, next year or in a decade is a very dangerous game the government is playing – with YOUR data.

If this week’s seminar on data integration is any indicator, the ABS and their hangers-on have learned nothing over the past year despite their litany of breaches in dealing with your data. If anything, with the introduction of drug testing of welfare recipients, robodebt and blanket income management, the government has demonstrated a perverse desire to use data in ways that breach human rights as never before. If you are as alarmed by this trend as I am, you don’t have to take it. We don’t have to eat this shit sandwich. Become a member of the EFA (or APF or DRW) today to support and help inform the approach we take as we engage in the controversies the government is putting on the table.

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