Backlash against Census continues

More senators will break the law

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More politicians have indicated they will not enter their name in tonight’s Census.

South Australian Senator Nick Xenophon yesterday said he would not enter his name despite the risk of prosecution. Since then Greens senators Sarah Hanson-Young, Scott Ludlam, Lee Rhiannon and Janet Rice Larissa Waters have said they will follow suit, as has Tasmanian Senator Jacqui Lambie.

Behind the backlash is the Australian Bureau of Statistics’ plan to retain names and addresses gathered during the Census for four years and potentially match the data gathered to other data sets.

Yesterday small business minister Michael McCormack attempted to reassure the public that the data gathered would be secure.

“I want to clearly reiterate again that the ABS has never had a privacy breach, a security breach, from the ABS Census. Never,” he said. (The Guardian has revealed that the ABS has had 14 data breaches since 2013 though none were related to the Census.)

In a statement issued today, the minister again offered assurances about Census data security and said:

The decision by the ABS to retain data for four years will enable the production of a more dynamic and comprehensive statistical data set to better inform policy settings and provide tailored services for communities from which all Australians are set to benefit.

After the data collection and processing is complete, the ABS will remove names and addresses from personal and household information and store them separately and made anonymous.It is important to note people’s names will never be “joined up” or attached to Census or any other data set.

By law, not even the Prime Minister can access the data collected in the Census. No other Government agencies, law enforcement agencies, police, courts or tribunals are permitted access.

The case for retaining names and addresses will be periodically reviewed and data will be destroyed before August 2020.
Professor Matthew Rimmer, a privacy expert at the Queensland University of Technology described the 2016 Census as “creepy”

Rimmer, professor of intellectual property and innovation at QUT’s Faculty of Law, said that the Census “rides roughshod over our anonymity, privacy and security without our informed consent or voluntary participation”

The academic said in a statement that the Census had highlighted the need for updated privacy laws, including a statutory cause of action for serious invasions of privacy and the introduction of mandatory disclosure of data breaches.

In a statement issued today the Statistical Society of Australia said that it was concerned about how the ABS had gone about explaining its decision.

The organisation's statement said:

The ABS has had a history of being highly protective of the confidential information it collects, even before the current legislation that makes it clear that confidentiality is paramount. For many years it has collected names and addresses, so that field staff can check returns in initial stages of processing; these are not retained. The ABS already has systems in place to manage that information and keep it confidential.What is new is not the collection of names and addresses, but the retention of returns with identifying names and addresses for a longer time, and in that time use it to create more comprehensive and useful data sets by linking to other data, including previous Censuses.

As statisticians we recognise the potential value of more comprehensive data sets to enable better decision making in government. This can be to the benefit of all. We understand that access to this more comprehensive data will be subject to the same or stronger restrictions that are currently applied.
The organisation said that the changes have many potential benefits but “have not been handled well”.“In particular, the public whose cooperation is critical for a successful Census does not appear to have been adequately involved, and the reasons for the changes are even now not well publicised. This is an issue of transparency where the ABS needs to do better.”

“The Statistical Society of Australia hopes that the Australian public fully engages with the Census on 9th August 2016,” the organisation said. “The Society also hopes that the ABS adopts an approach of taking the community into its confidence in explaining what it is doing and why.”

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Tags privacycensusAustralian Bureau of StatisticsScott LudlamGreensNick Xenophon

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