Settlement Guide

Settlement Guide: how safe is your census data?

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Australia’s census has a history of keeping personal information secure and private. However, this year the Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS) will make it compulsory for people to include their names and addresses. Privacy advocates are concerned that the move will not only lead to public backlash against the census but also undermine the accuracy and credibility of the census results.

For over 100 years, Australians have shared anonymous personal information with the ABS, to help policy-makers plan for the country’s future. With the 2016 census moving online, the ABS is now asking respondents to add in their names and addresses in their census data, and privacy groups are calling it a major mistake. Dr Roger Clarke is a board member of the Australian Privacy Foundation.

With the 2016 census moving online, the ABS is now asking respondents to add in their names and addresses in their census data


“They’re now proposing that they are going to keep the identity of individuals. Previously they've said forever and then they've backed off and said only for four years. Although we can’t actually believe them but they've said they’ll only keep names and addresses connected to the data for four years now. Complete breach of trust, complete change in the whole basis of what the census is about and people are upset about that.”

 

The ABS says the public needn’t be concerned as the Bureau has over 100 years of a proven record in keeping personal data private and secure


“In the census we’ve always collected names and addresses as part of the census, however what we do straight after the census is we remove the names and addresses from all the other information on the census form and store them separately. We don't give anyone access to be able to access both their names or the addresses and the other data on that form so the data from that form becomes anonymous and that's the data we use for making statistics and the it's the data that researchers can access.”

 

What we do [ABS] straight after the census is we remove the names and addresses from all the other information on the census form and store them separately


The Australian Greens Party isn’t convinced by the ABS’ reassurance. It’s running a “Save Our Census” campaign calling for Treasurer Scott Morrison to overturn the ABS’ decision to retain names and addresses on census forms.
Greens Senator Scott Ludlam says by not doing so, the 2016 census results may be flawed.

 

The Australian Greens Party is running a “Save Our Census” campaign calling for Treasurer Scott Morrison to overturn the ABS’ decision to retain names and addresses on census forms

 
“I think it does increase the likelihood of boycott either subtle ones or overt ones where people just refuse to fill stuff out and that begins to corrupt the database and that begins to effectively compromise the material that's being collected that policy makers all around the country find immensely valuable so I think it's a risk that the ABS is running that's absolutely unnecessary. They don't have to be taking this risk.”


Senator Ludlam says the public’s distrust in the online security of government agencies is based on recent evidence.

The ABS is confident that they have the right measures in place to protect personal data against accidents and hackers


“We’ve seen the really high profile hacks in very well resourced corporations and government departments for that matter. The immigration department let’s not forget, inadvertently compromised more than 9 thousand asylum seekers. People fleeing, for instances, from police states and authoritarian regimes. Nobody is immune and the fact is if this material isn’t collected and identifiable in the first place then that makes the risk that much lower.”


ABS’ Duncan Young, however, is confident that they have the right measures in place to protect personal data against accidents and hackers.

 

But the Australian Privacy Foundation says there are examples throughout history of supposedly secure personal data being accessed against civilians in the name of national security


“We use encryption technologies to make sure the data is encrypted so only the ABS has the keys to unencrypt the data. And we have many layers of security so we have physical security so all the data and computers are kept in a secure site. We have layers of technology security so the best software and processes in place to protect the data. We implement the best practice security mechanisms for government and we do a range of testing of those mechanisms to make sure they’re robust.”


But the Australian Privacy Foundation’s Dr Roger Clarke says there are examples throughout history of supposedly secure personal data being accessed against civilians in the name of national security.

 

Laws which have been in place in Australia since over 100 years say that census can never release people’s census responses, not even to court, not even to the police, not even to other government agencies


“One of the reasons why there are very few Jews left in the Netherlands is that data was kept about racial background, and ethnic background and religious affiliations. The Nazis gained access to that data when they invaded the Netherlands. There’s the standard story in the United States in the beginning of World War 2 when the census data was raided, breaching all laws in order to identify people of Japanese descent so that they could be thrown into concentration camps.”


Dr Clarke has worked in the IT security industry for over 45 years. He claims that the biggest threat to personal data is the ABS itself.

Greens Senator Scott Ludlam says people should have the choice on whether or not to disclose their names and addresses on the census form


“I think the threat model that most people ought to be the concerned about is the government and the ABS itself. The ABS has that data and if the ABS chooses to abuse that data by retaining personal identities associated with the data, and by distributing that data, and by utilising that data to know more about individuals and to study individuals rather than just producing statistics. Than ABS is the biggest threat and the ABS has already got the data so I think the public has a lot of reason to be concerned.”


Duncan Young from the ABS remains adamant that personal information will remain secure.

“There’s very strong laws which have been in place in Australia since over 100 years, which say that census can never release people’s census responses, not even to court, not even to the police, not even to other government agencies. We need to protect the identity of all of the information we’ve collected and if we don't do that we’d be sent to jail. It’s seen as a very serious thing and so the ABS has never released any identifiable census information and never will.”

Australian Privacy Foundation predicts more than a million people will either fail to complete the census, or fill in fake information to protect their privacy


Greens Senator Scott Ludlam says people should have the choice on whether or not to disclose their names and addresses on the census form.

“People can opt out of Facebook. You can’t get prosecuted for not using Facebook. And that's very different from the government saying you have a legal obligation to provide your name, address, your religion, your marital status, how much you earn. Basically, all these extraordinary, very fine-grained personal information and that you could be fined or prosecuted and potentially sent to jail for not doing that. The general privacy principle that should be applied here is that the ABS shouldn’t collect more information than they absolutely need.”


Australian Privacy Foundation’s Dr Roger Clarke predicts more than a million people will either fail to complete the census, or fill in fake information to protect their privacy. He also says that public distrust in the ABS has increased.

 

It’s almost impossible to verify the authenticity of responses from nearly 10 million dwellings involving 24 million people


“The last figures we had from ABS’ own surveys was round about 20 per cent distrust in the ABS but that had been rising and this latest flurry we’ll have seen it rising further. If we did another survey today, it’ll be well above 20 per cent distrust. Meanwhile, by 2011, already four per cent of the population were failing to fill out the census forms. If you think about four per cent, we’re talking about a million people. You’d imagine that a four per cent, five per cent, six per cent error rate would start to make a mockery of some of the figures that ABS is publishing.”

 

Over 65 per cent of Australian households are expected to complete the census online on August 9


It’s almost impossible to verify the authenticity of responses from nearly 10 million dwellings involving 24 million people. Duncan Young says the ABS conducts accuracy measures.

“We run a range of quality checks with the census after each census is run because it’s really important for us to understand whether or not the census has missed any part of the population. We want to understand have we got a full count of young people or full count of people from different countries of birth or who speak different languages? That’ll help reassure the people who are using our data that yes this data does still represent the full picture of Australia and how Australia is in 2016."

 

With privacy advocacy groups calling for a boycott, it seems that the reliability and accuracy of the 2016 census is about to face its biggest test to date


Over 65 per cent of Australian households are expected to complete the census online on August 9. But with privacy advocacy groups calling for a boycott, it seems that the reliability and accuracy of the 2016 census is about to face its biggest test to date.

For more information visit the ABS.