Census Fail?

In all the excitement of the Olympics, I almost forgot about the other major event of the week! I’m sure most people are up to speed with The National Census of Population and Housing, which is taking place today. Its the largest collection of statistical information about Australia, and (aside for a few exceptions) is compulsory for everyone in Australia to take part. The census takes place every five years, and this year is set to be the biggest so far. This information is vital as its used to ‘distribute government funds and plan services for the community… and is used by individuals and organisations in the public and private sectors to make informed decisions’ (ABS, 2016). This data is primarily used to guide government policy, and where money should be directed. Organisations, researchers and the wider public are allowed a simplified version of this information after it has been condensed down.

‘Writing’ by Unsplash. Available at https://pixabay.com/p-828911/?no_redirect under a Creative Commons Attribution CC0 1.0

But with the hashtag #CensusFail gaining momentum and Senators Nick Xenophon, Scott Ludlum and Sarah Hanson-Young publicly stating they won’t be putting their names on the census form – it’s clear that many don’t have confidence in the system. Too be honest, I’m a little apprehensive too. If conclusions can be drawn about an individual from simply accessing their metadata, which the ABS is also collecting from online participants; what then can one conclude from a whole questionnaire? Not only that, but this information is collated and crossmatched with data from previous census survey, then linked to educational, medical and criminal records too.

The Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS) and ministers responsible are comparing the census to people ‘giving information to big corporations such as Facebook’ (Martin, 2016) . This doesn’t put me at ease though, as Facebook (which is voluntary to join) has been fighting off concerns about privacy ever since it started out. Furthermore, Facebook doesn’t yield as much power against the Australian people as the government does. Well, In most respects.

‘Privacy’ by Sebastien Wiertz. Available at https://www.flickr.com/photos/wiertz/ under a Creative Commons Attribution CC BY 2.0

I believe the risks shouldn’t be underestimated on data collecting initiatives as far arching as this. No matter how securely this information is collected, transferred and stored, there is always a possibility of mismanagement – especially in the unstable environment of the world wide web. Even though the ABS has had 14 (known) breaches since 2013 (Farrell, 2016), it has got a clean record when it comes to the census.

While ABS census data processing director Tracey Chester outlined how data is ‘anonymised’ and that names and addresses would be stored separately, ABS agency head David Kalisch confessed that there was ‘always a chance’ someone could hack the system (Mills, 2016).

‘ABS House which is the headquarters for the Australian Bureau of Statistics’ by Bidgee. Available at https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Australian_Bureau_of_Statistics under a Creative Commons Attribution CC BY-SA 3.0

Former deputy privacy commissioner Anna Johnson, aka Boaty McBoatface, is all for the census but states that whether its ‘external hackers, deliberate misuse by ABS staff or negligent losses of data, the only way to prevent data breaches from occurring is to not hold the information in the first place’ (Johnston, 2016). This can be backed up by Chris Berg from the Institute of Public Affairs, who said how ‘there is no such thing as 100 per cent safely secured information… No matter what firewalls the ABS places around access and matching, it is a truism that any data that can be used usefully can also be used illegitimately’ (ABC, 2016) . This is a major concern, as more than 65% (roughly 16 million people) plan to complete the census online (ABC, 2016).

It seems there will be inherent risks, no matter how the data is collected. I’m not sure how else we would be able to get an proper ‘snapshot’ of the population (with our full knowledge and consent)? There is the argument that there shouldn’t be a census at all, but its hard to deny this rich source of information is highly useful. If there were no census, another way to accurately assess where the societal problems were would need to be developed. Without it, it would be difficult to determine where the most disadvantaged were, and who required the most attention.

‘Parliament House Canberra, Australia’ by JJ Harrison. Available at https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Parliament_House,_Canberra under a Creative Commons Attribution CC BY-SA 3.0

While information is likely collected for the reasons they say it is; the general public may never know the full extend to which the government, organisations and individuals utilise it. I believe that the public good must outweigh the dangers associated with the collection of private information, particularly when its on such a large scale like this.

I hope all Australians forget the Olympics, if only for a second, and pause to think about their privacy.