How To Dodge Census 2016 To Protect Your Privacy

This year’s Census conducted by the Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS) will not be anonymous. Your name and address information will be retained for up to four years. This new Census arrangement has privacy pundits up in arms. Yet, it’s compulsory for all Australian households to submit their information. So what should you do if you value your privacy and don’t want to fill out the Census form? Here are some suggestions on how to avoid it.

While the Government has tried to reassure the public that the personally identifiable information in this year’s Census will be kept safe, it has yet to provide an adequate reason as to why it’s collecting this data. It’s an extensive form that asks a lot of personal questions so it’s no surprise that privacy advocacy groups and industry experts have condemned this new approach to data collection.

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The sad thing about all of this is that the Census is compulsory and if you don’t fill it out, either online or by paper form, on August 9, you could face fines of $180 for each day that you’re late to submit the information.

While you can provide false information on the Census, it’s probably a route that you won’t want to take given that the statistics generated from the Census could potentially shape future policies and funding from the Government. Also, providing misleading information could incur a fine of up to $1800.

Sure sounds expensive to not fill out the Census, but how many people actually get fined? To put things in perspective, in 2011, 1282 notices were sent out to those who failed to provide information to the Census and only 78 prosecution actions were approved.

Is there a risk of getting fined if you don’t complete the Census? Yes. Is it a negligible risk? Well, that’s for you to decide.

Privacy adviser and IT security consultant Roger Clarke has made a list of ways to potentially avoid doing the Census, which has since been picked up by the Electronic Frontiers Australia (EFA). He makes it clear that he neither encourages nor discourages any of the actions mentioned (we don’t either, for that matter), but it is some food for thought for those who really don’t want to complete the Census due to privacy concerns:

#1 Avoid being resident in any household on the Census date, Tuesday 9 August 2016
The Census is based on the premises, not the person, and hence if you aren’t resident you shouldn’t be recorded. (It appears that ‘grey nomads’ have had success with this “gone fishin’” approach)

#2 If others in the household are submitting a return, instruct them to leave you off it
This may cause ructions within a family, but may be entirely appropriate in a shared house or flat. The wording of the Act leaves open whether the ABS may still have the power to prosecute the objector

#3 Get an envelope and a form, and send a blank form in
This will very likely result in successive re-visits from the collector, followed by threatening letters from the ABS. But if enough people were to do it, the volume would be such that the ABS would not have enough resources to follow everyone up.

#4 Avoid being at home when the Collector calls
This will require great persistence, because Collectors and their supervisors are paid to chase, chase, and chase again.

#5 Be absent or too busy
Whenever the ABS’s contractor calls or arrives, some people make themselves absent or say that they’re too busy, and avoid appointments. (This requires great persistence, because collectors and their supervisors are paid to chase, chase, and chase again. Eventually they may run out of time, although they have the option to argue to the magistrate that your continual busyness constitutes refusal to answer)

#6 Ask lots of questions
These may be about, for example, the process, the questions, the privacy protections, or the security of the data. This may be accompanied by saying or implying that you may be prepared to provide the data once you have satisfactory answers.

(Based on experience, the ABS is likely to reply slowly, and with pre-written, carefully-composed and vague text that does not answer your questions. It’s commonly necessary to ask the questions again, and address letters further up the organisation. It’s necessary to sustain your patience over many months until one side or the other gives up)

#7 Provide made-up answers to the particular questions that are of greatest concern to you
This is not appropriate for people who do not like to be forced to lie in order to protect their privacy. Moreover, if the intention is to avoid prosecution, the lies need to be subtle enough that the ABS believes them, or considers them too difficult to prove to be lies. On the other hand, because ABS is handling 5-10 million forms, it may be impractical for them to check even for silly answers, let alone for plausible but incorrect answers.

#8 Refuse to provide answers to the particular questions that are of greatest concern to you
It is likely that this will not be possible with the online form, so it would be necessary to demand a paper one. This approach appears less likely to lead to prosecution, and it seems likely that the magistrate would be both less likely to convict, and less likely to levy a significant fine.

#9 Refuse to fill in the form
The ABS has the power to prosecute under Census and Statistics Act ss. 14-15, and to seek fines that the magistrate could choose to apply once, or for every day that the data is not provided. Some prosecutions do take place. In practice, only a very small proportion of the people who have failed to provide the data have ever been charged, and no report has been seen of any large fine being imposed.

#10 Fill in the form using a light blue pen
A recent proposal is based on a statement on the 2011 census form that you must fill it in using “black or blue” pen.

Forms are then scanned in order to extract the data. The graphic arts industry uses a pen that writes in a form of very light blue that is not normally picked up by scanners, called ‘non-photo blue’ or ‘non-repro blue’ – RGB 164, 221, 237.

(There are practical limitations. A pen of that kind is needed, or a digital equivalent. The ABS’s scanners may be able to be set so as to cope with the colour. If only a few people use it, the ABS would detect it, and could manually capture the data from a modest number of forms. There’s an outside chance that ABS could attempt to convince a magistrate that use of a light blue pen was tantamount to a refusal to provide data. If many people use it, on the other hand, it could have an impact. Note, however, that ABS would be very likely to maintain secrecy about countermeasures used, and refuse to divulge information about how many people adopt the approach).

Will you be filling in the census next Tuesday night? Let us know in the comments.

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