Is the Australian Census a Privacy concern?

David Wilson - Aug 07, 2016

Privacy concerns have occupied top spot of the 2016 Census news since the Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS) announced late last year that it would be storing respondents names and addresses for four years.

From a purely research point-of-view, this additional data is incredibly valuable and has the capacity to assist policy makers in areas such as housing, health and social welfare. Even more so, the data can help better assess the effectiveness of current policies.

Privacy, and specifically online privacy, has been one of the biggest trending topics for the past few years as big data has played an ever-increasing role across all borders and industries. We’ve read the horror stories on a weekly basis from data breaches to inadequate disclosure pertaining to data retention. Naturally (and with the help of the OAIC), we have become hypersensitive to all things privacy at a time in history where we share more accurate, personal information online than ever before. The key distinction being that we do so consciously when we are informed of how the data will be used.

The difficulty for the ABS is that it does not disclose how the identifying data (name and address) will be used and disclosed, and most importantly by whom. Now we can confirm that the ABS cannot disclose this identifying data to any other government agency (as per Census and Statistics Act 1905), however with data being held for 4 years, it wouldn’t be surprising to see parliament pass amendmendments in the interest of ‘national security’ given these uncertain times.

In the lead up to the Census, the ABS has been criticised for not running a thorough, consultative process – which is not surprising given a similar proposal was rejected in 2006 and again in 2011. This issue has been further compounded by individuals’ frustration with not being able to secure paper-based Census papers (where they feel they can skip some of these key details) due to long telephone queues.

Needless to say, the changes have garnered a lot more attention in the lead up to tomorrow’s Census and it is likely that the ABS may just find it’s data contains a lot more ‘John and Jane Smiths’ as people find creative ways to protest the sharing of their personal information.

If you want to know more about whether you need to legally provide your name and address on the census form, Dr Caroline Henckels from Monash University has published a great blog post you can find here.

You can also read the privacy statement provided by the ABS here, and the OAIC Census statement here.

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