Census 2016: Should We Be Concerned About Our Privacy?

Census 2016: Should We Be Concerned About Our Privacy?

As you’ve probably heard, names and addresses collected as part of the 2016 Census will be retained to enable the census to be linked to other national data. (Names and addresses had previously been retained for 18 months, but the information is now planned to be kept for up to four years.) So should you be worried?

Opponents of longer retention of names and addresses have cited concerns relating to privacy, security, coercion and identification of individuals and minority populations. Some concerned about the changes have called for sabotage and boycott.

Proponents have heralded the benefits of retaining names and addresses for longer to enable the census to be more accurately linked to other data. Such data are long overdue and have the power to provide innovation and efficiencies through stronger evidence, they argue. They have also expressed concern over the quality of data if opponents sabotage or boycott the census.

Misinformation about the census and the retention of names and addresses has featured heavily in this debate. But the Australian Bureau of Statistics’ (ABS) safeguards to protect privacy and secure data outweigh possible risks associated with the longer retention of names and addresses, and census linkage with other data.

Privacy and data security

Because the census is the only opportunity to get the data it collects about population composition and geographic distribution, it provides a great deal of information for policy and planning. It also collects information about the Indigenous population, and data about homelessness and little-known populations are captured.

It has been argued this year’s census won’t be anonymous, so the only way to protect privacy is to not collect data at all.

The ABS has safeguards to protect privacy and security. Its computing environment adheres to strict government standards for encryption and storage. Names are kept separately from addresses, and these data are separate from the rest of census data.

Names and addresses have always been used for quality checks, and addresses have been used to determine coding of houses into geographical areas. The 2016 Census will use names and addresses to create a statistical linkage key for a unique identifier. Names and addresses will be destroyed no later than 2020.

Data are released as aggregates only and won’t include personal identifiers. Also, the ABS cannot release identifiable data to “any court, tribunal or other agency”. The acts under which the ABS operates ensure data that may identify anyone are not released.

The ABS has reported breaches to its system, but these haven’t included census data.

Linkage can be done without names, but it’s more accurate with them. The ABS linked a sample of the 2011 to the 2006 Census without names, which has proven to be an important asset, but it has limitations.

The 2011 Census was linked with death registrations in a project that allowed more accurate calculation of life expectancy of Indigenous Australians to help inform the Closing the Gap target.

Overseas, national statistical agencies have retained names and addresses and linked the census data with other data with much success in terms of data, privacy and public support. Canada, the UK and New Zealand are just a few countries that collect names and addresses and conduct data linkage using the census.

Canada’s recent census serves as a good example Australia can learn from. Its 2016 Census was met with overwhelming public support following poor-quality data obtained in the 2011 Census after a shift to collecting less data. It was reported that the lack of complete data in 2011 was a great loss to the country.

Australia is in a position now where it risks incomplete data due to sabotage and boycott. Given Australia’s demographic and fiscal outlook, poor census data risks jeopardising the future. Planning is ever more important, and the census provides the necessary information to do so effectively.

A census for the future

Most would agree that making decisions requiring financial investment should be based on evidence and need. The census provides data to inform such an evidence base.

The changes to this year’s census will deliver many improvements for Australians, which will play a powerful role in informing the future.

Liz Allen, Postdoctoral Fellow, Centre for Aboriginal Economic Policy Research, Australian National University

This article was originally published on The Conversation.


  • Here is the link to the original article on The Conversation: https://theconversation.com/census-2016-should-you-be-concerned-about-your-privacy-63206

    The Federal Government destroyed all trust in relation to data collection when they passed the metadata retention legislation. It was sold to the public as necessary to fight terrorists and paedophiles, yet the agencies that deal with these crimes already have access to this information. When the list of Government agencies seeking warrantless access to this information was exposed it only made the situation worse.

    Given the number of people voting informally at this years election, roughly 7% from memory, I wouldn’t be surprised if the data collected in the census is useless.

  • they are also attempting to close the “im away somewhere remote” loop hole this year. i got this from them in an email today:

    “If you will be staying somewhere remote, or on the side of the road we can provide you with a code for the online Census by email or SMS. If you won’t have internet access where you end up staying on the night, just complete the Census as soon as you do have internet access using the code we send you.

    If you don’t know the exact address of the location you stayed at, just put as much information as you can, in the question that asks you about the address. This could be the name of the road, or even GPS coordinates.”

  • This article barely outlines the concerns about data retention. What about this: ‘The ABS also said it would be using “anonymised” versions of names, and the names and addresses “will only be used for projects approved by a senior-level committee”.’ http://mobile.abc.net.au/news/2016-08-01/census-2016-why-are-people-worried-about-the-census/7678198 The USA government collected private census data and subsequently handed it over to security agencies so they could search it for terrorism suspects. Another concern is a future government introducing new legislation to change the rules about what the data could be used for.
    There is plenty to be concerned about. Google ‘2016 census concerns’ and check it out for yourself.

  • I smile at one particular proponent’s argument, effectively:
    “You should fill the census accurately because you’ll benefit from the results.”

    This incentive-logic *doesn’t* endorse filling the census accurately!
    It instead endorses two other tactics:

    1: Faking census data in such a way as to maximally benefit your priorities.
    2: Avoiding the census completely if you don’t believe in such benefit.

    The actual reason to fill out a census accurately is social responsibility.
    But the government is seriously undermining the strength of this social obligation with its recent census changes.

    Lastly, for those who believe the nativity story, think about why governments take census. Now you see why no census has demanded that people make long trips to their birthplace.

  • Census information collected years ago,including names and addresses,are available from ancestry.com via their CENSUS SEARCH. So the retention of personal information has been going on for years. ITS NOT NEW! *insert surprised look*

    • I’m skeptical that you can do this, I’d like to see proof in the form of a linked screenshot from ancestry.com

      The screenshot will convince me if it has a living person’s age, address, stated ethnicity, occupation, and religion.

      Please remember to blank the person’s name, and save the screenshot as a bmp, not a jpeg.

  • Technologies which centralise the personal information always pose a risk to citizens. The more personal and comprehensive the information stored, the greater the risk.

    Risk of hacking. Risk of personal information being dumped on the internet. Risk of personal information being sold. Risk of governments changing the laws to allow the ABS to sell the information to make up for budget cuts.

    In other countries, databases are now used by governments to harass policial opponents. And if insurance companies got their hands on census data, they could then weed out people who have had depression or other ailments but not severe enough to go to a doctor.

    I’m sure people can think of other risks around huge databases of personal information. History can always be repeated.

    • there’s no threat of a fine for not completing all of the information facebook asks for, and you can enter as much or little as you like.

    • The amount of personal information that I’ve got from my neighbors Facebook account is mind boggling!! I don’t know them personally, but thru FB,I know the lot. They write it…..I read it. Same as going to the library,….if you don’t want me to read the book….DONT PUT IT ON THE SHELF.

      I treat FB as a “library card” ( using fake name,and country,of course) to read all the “Books” I can

  • “The changes to this year’s census will deliver many improvements for Australians, which will play a powerful role in informing the future and the New World Order
    There i fixed it for them

  • The data linkage is exactly the problem. I’ve always happily filled it out before, because I assumed that the names were only used to check your name off the roll as having completed it, and that they were then immediately destroyed. I had no idea they were keeping it for as long as 18 months and that they were data matching to other records. They’ve been quoted in the media as saying they want to access our Medicare and PBS records to data match – I’m sorry, but where the hell do they get off thinking they have the right to access our sensitive medical information without our consent??

    Notice they keep saying they aren’t giving our census data to other government departments, but ignore the question of whether the data is flowing in the opposite direction? How much data is flowing TO the ABS, rather than just AWAY from it?

  • The ABS has fed some more blatant propaganda through some down-food-chain channels – can’t think of them off-hand. This here is somewhat more subtle, but unmistakable. Makes no impression other than to confirm basis of mistrust: What the bleep are they doing spending public money trying to subvert public discourse? – and to discredit LH, which goes now irretrievably into the garbage bin of internet history.

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