POLITICS

Here's Exactly What The Census Will And Won't Do With Your Information

Names and addresses will be retained, which has raised some privacy concerns.

03/08/2016 3:42 PM AEST | Updated August 3, 2016 21:01
Jonatan Fernstrom
The national census will provide a snapshot of Australia

Australians will fill out the national Census next week, despite increasing calls from some privacy advocates to boycott the twice-a-decade data snapshot amid fears how household information will be stored and used.

By August 9, some 24 million Australians will be surveyed, with more than 65 per cent of households expected to have filled out the 61-question survey online -- or attract penalties of up to $180 per day for failure to complete the survey.

The census -- which comes around every five years -- is used to determine demographic information which is used to distribute government funds for community planning -- things such as housing, transport, education, industry, hospitals and the environment.

In a first, the Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS) has decided to retain names and addresses collected in the 2016 Census for up to four years instead of the usual 18 months.

The national statistics agency says the move will "enable a richer and dynamic statistical picture of Australia through the combination of Census data with other survey and administrative data".

Some privacy advocates, public figures and citizens are not happy, but a lead demographer says there's nothing to worry about.

ROCK SOLID ABS?

"The census is not a lifelong surveillance to track individuals, that's not it's intended purpose," Australian National University Demographer, Liz Allen, told the Huffington Post Australia.

"This Census is much like every other census before it. It is a one off snapshot to understand the composition and geographic distribution of the population."

Data that will be "linked" after this census will be -- as it always has been -- de-identified to look at trends over time or look at patterns of use to inform decision making.

The ABS says it will remove names and addresses from other personal and household information after data collection and processing, and are stored separately and securely.

The Federal minister responsible for the Census, Michael McCormack, told Adelaide radio station Fiveaa, the ABS has the proper protections in place, adding it was against the law for ABS staff to share personal information obtained from the survey.

"The personal information collected for the census is not shared with anyone, including, importantly, other government departments and agencies," he said.

The name and address data is being kept for four years instead of 18 months to help the ABS with longitudinal research.

"What that is is to track life stages, so that the information is able to be used for more purposes, for longer, that help with the delivery of health services, to help with education, to help with all the important things that go to allocation of funding," he said.

The longitudinal data set is anonymised, and researchers tend to only be interested in aggregate data, said Allen.

"That data is available for research, but it is only available in de-identified form where it has been heavily confidentialised and you cannot identify the individual.

"More importantly people who use that data are vetted by the ABS, so in order for us as researchers to get ahold of that ABS data... we have to be affiliated with an appropriate research organisation.

"I'll need to say how I'm going to use the data set, what type of analyses I intend to do, what topics I intend to look at, how I intend to publish any of those research outputs.

#censusfail

But there are many concerned about the ABS's decision to retain names, prompting the ABS go on an online charm offensive, while there are reports elderly Australians have experienced trouble getting hold of the paper form version of the survey.

While 81 percent of Australia's general public trusts the ABS, according to its own data, the bureau has had 14 data breaches since 2013.

Former ABS statistician, Bill McLennan, argues the 2016 Census is "the most significant invasion of privacy ever perpetrated on Australians by the ABS" and is akin to setting up in effect a "statistical Australian card".

"I'd expect that a large proportion of Australians, if they really understood what is proposed, wouldn't want their personal information used in this way; just like they opposed the Australia Card," he wrote for the Australian Privacy Foundation.

"For a statistical office, this approach is just not tenable. To collect accurate information the willing cooperation of the public is required; this is an old adage, but a very true one. Threatening the public with prosecution is never a successful strategy to adopt."

NSW Privacy Commissioner, Elizabeth Coombs, has also weighed in on the 2016 census, saying the plan to store Australians names posed a "range of risks".

On Wednesday IBM's Worldwide Security Solution Architect weighed in after Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull defended the ABS's security of personal details as "absolute, and that is protected by law and by practice".

Electronic Frontiers Australia, which advocates for digital freedom, access and privacy, has expressed concern about implications of a misrepresentative census.

"In previous censuses, respondents were allowed to opt-in to having personally identifiable information retained, and it is the position of EFA that respondents to the 2016 Census should have the same privacy protections afforded to respondents of previous censuses, in line with community expectations," EFA said.

In 2011, the census covered 98 percent of the population. In 2016 more than 39,000 temporary staff will help survey more than 24-million people across Australia.

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