Privacy Furore As Australians Prepare For Census

Australian flag. (source: Shutterstock)

The Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS has handled this years’ Census.

In December 2015, the Australian Statistician, David Kalisch, quietly decided to extend the retention period for names and addresses from 18 months to 48 months — 4 years — despite the idea having previously been rejected as too risky. An independent Privacy Impact Assessment conducted in 2005 recommended that names should not be kept outside of the processing period, and should be used only for ‘quality studies’ — essentially verifying the data collected is of sufficient quality to be useful.

Former Australian Statistician Bill McLennan has called the move “the most significant invasion of privacy ever perpetrated on Australians by the ABS.

Australians have overwhelmed the Twitter using the hashtag #CensusFail.

The government was forced to respond, with Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull taking questions about the census on Wednesday and the responsible Minister, Michael McCormack, calling a press conference late Wednesday to attempt to allay people’s fears. David Kalisch, and Program Manager for the Census Duncan Young, have also been kept busy with media appearances as they attempt to justify the decision to retain people’s names and addresses.

One reason given by the ABS for keeping this data is “to enable a richer and dynamic statistical picture of Australia through the combination of Census data with other survey and administrative data.” While there are many benign and potentially beneficial ways this information could be combined, the open-ended nature of the possible combinations has privacy advocates worried.

Census data is extremely sensitive, and governments around the world have been known to misuse the data once it’s collected. The U.S. Census Bureau gave Japanese-American name and address data to the Secret Service in World War II; this information was then used to round up Japanese-Americans and imprison them in internment camps during the war.

This information was supposedly protected by laws preventing the disclosure of name and address data. The Australian Census and Statistics Act contains similar protections that forbid the ABS from disclosing information to other parties, and specifically forbids the disclosure of information “in a manner that is likely to enable the identification of a particular person or organisation.” However laws can be changed or overruled, as The Second War Powers Act of 1942 did, temporarily repealing the protection for the U.S. census data.