Census 2016 – the good and the bad

256px-Volkstelling_1925_CensusThere’s good and bad in this year’s Census, which occurs on the 9th of August.

The good is that gender reporting has been loosened from the traditional Male/Female binary. There’s now a space to write it in for yourself.

The ABS (Australian Bureau of Statistics) website has this handy factsheet on the subject.

Now to the bad.

This year, the ABS intends to keep identifying information, including name and address, beyond the usual reporting period (which is when the information is collected). In years gone by, this information was not retained. Now the information is going to be linked to other national data.

Reporting in The Conversation:

Names and addresses have always been used for quality checks, and addresses have been used to determine coding of houses into geographical areas. The 2016 Census will use names and addresses to create a statistical linkage key for a unique identifier. Names and addresses will be destroyed no later than 2020.

Many privacy commentators have said this is a mistake. Chris Berg, writing for ABC News states:

Government departments have a poor record of protecting information from their own staff. The Department of Human Services admitted there were 63 episodes of unauthorised access to private files by its staff between July 2012 and March 2013. The South Australian Police Force accuses up to 100 of its own members of unauthorised access to police files every single year. ABS staff are no more or less virtuous than any other public employee.

And while the ABS has privacy policies in place, and state clearly they don’t release identifiable information, they don’t take into account the unauthorised breaches mentioned above. Indeed, they’ve had privacy breaches in the past.

The Office of the Australian Information Commissioner (OAIC) told Guardian Australia it had received 14 data breach notifications with regard to personal information held by the ABS since 2013.

One such breach was from an ABS employee leaking information to a friend at the National Australia bank.

So it’s certainly not beyond the bounds of probability that information could be leaked again. That’s the problem with collecting so much information. And for gender variant people, mentally ill and others, this is a big privacy problem.

The Electronic Frontier Foundation has a breakdown of what’s what and state:

Although it is illegal to knowingly provide false or misleading information on a census form, it is feared that many people may avoid participating, or provide misleading information, in order to protect their privacy.

This has actually already happened, with 64390 people stating their religion as “Jedi”. But there are other ways to avoid the census totally, including joining the Camping Festival and Homeless Persons Support Night, or simply avoiding being in a residence for the reporting date.

Read the EFA article for more.

Read the ABS privacy impact statement

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