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Aug072016

Research vs consent: the Australian Census

I’m quite conflicted about the Australian Census this year. Basically I’m torn between loving the Census and thinking the Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS) are handling the process – especially the privacy concerns – like out-of-touch chumps.

On the one hand, the Census is great. It provides data that are incredible valuable and important for many, many aspects of policy in Australia. My work and research would be so much harder without the ABS in general, and the Census in particular. I want both to continue and to be excellent.

On the other hand – what the fuck are the ABS doing? Linking our Census data with data from other sources may be incredibly valuable from a research perspective, but it’s also a massive reduction in privacy. The trade may well be worth it – but for fuck’s sake, that’s not a decision an agency just gets to announce.

If the ABS asked me to surrender my privacy to give it better research outcomes, I would probably do it. But they’re not asking: they’re telling. The consultation on this has been next to zero, and the ABS has been dreadful at dealing with criticism; tin-eared, high-handed, condescending, and dismissive.

This week, the head of the ABS responded to privacy fears by saying, “a number of the privacy groups have raised this in every census for the last number of times”. THAT DOES NOT ADDRESS THE PROBLEM. Why have privacy groups complained for years? Because of security concerns, but also because, for years, the ABS has – without people’s consent – used identifying information to link Census data with other data. Previously they did this for only 5 per cent of people, and now they want to do it for everyone.

“Oh, but we’ve been doing it for years,” is not a justification! It doesn’t mean your processes are good now – it means they were bullshit then.

Wholesale data linkage has been in the works in the ABS for over year, but unless you have some niche interests, you probably wouldn’t have heard about it until around March this year – months after the decision was made – when a former head of the ABS slammed the plan.

Problems include that the ABS’ consultation was narrow (neither the Australian Privacy Foundation nor other civil society bodies appear to have been consulted), the privacy impact assessment was done internally, and the announcement was a low key press release the Friday before Christmas last year. (That is not a time you choose to attract attention.) The debate has only made it to mainstream prominence now, a few weeks ahead of the census date. That is bullshit process for justifying a huge decrease in privacy.

Again: the decrease in privacy may well be worth it. I knowingly choose to give up my privacy all the time; to Facebook, Google, etc.. But that’s a choice. It’s my choice. I am not compelled to give up my privacy (except at the level of social pressure, but let’s not get into that). Why does the ABS get to make this choice about my privacy? It’s a bloody agency; this isn’t a direction from the Government, and there’s no evidence of public support for the plan.

Why is there no “opt out” on this? To the extent that there is an “opt out” – omitting or falsifying the identifying data – is it appropriate for the ABS to threaten people with fines if they take it?

So I’m not okay with the ABS’ plan. I want the ABS to have great data, but I don’t want to be forced to give up my privacy without a proper process, and this process has been anything but proper. I trust the ABS less than I used to, and I’m sad about that.

My options, aside from writing to the ABS (who’ll ignore me) and my local member, appear to be risking fines for omitting data or lying to the ABS – or giving up my privacy and legitimising their bullshit processes. Fucking great.

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References (3)

References allow you to track sources for this article, as well as articles that were written in response to this article.
  • Source
    The Australian Privacy Foundation (APF) believes that while there is value in a trusted and accurate Census, keeping all names and addresses changes its nature, and this creates an unnecessary risk to the privacy of everyone in Australia.
  • Source
  • Source
    When the Crikey website wrote about [data collection plans] earlier this year, the ABS accused it of undermining the "complete public trust" it needed to conduct the census and get accurate rather than falsified information. It's making a good fist of it itself.

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