How far is too far? Protecting the Privacy of Australians during the 2016 Census

With the census just around the corner many privacy advocates are questioning the motives of the Australian Bureau of Statistic (ABS), in not only collecting but also storing personal data. Recent revelations that the ABS has already used census data for more than just administrative purpose, has raised concerns about the security of the personal data being collected.

The ABS has used personal data collected in the census to compare with data held by other government agencies since the 2006 census. Duncan Young, Head of Census with the ABS said that the personal data is anonymised through the use of computer codes and no staff members ever see identifiable information. The key concern of privacy advocates, including the Australian Privacy Foundation, is the illegitimate purpose for which valuable personal data could be used.

The Australian Census is conducted every five years in accordance with the Census and Statistics Act 1905 (Cth) (the Act). Pursuant to section 8 of the Act, the ABS may collect ‘statistical information in relation to the matters prescribed’ by regulation. In previous years this statistical information has included:

(a) Name;

(b) Sex;

(c) Age;

(d) Personal relationships with others in same household;

(e) Marital status;

(f) Religious denomination;

(g) Citizenship;

(h) Country of birth;

(i) Educational background;

(j) Ancestry, including names and country of birth of parents;

(k) Employment status; and

(l) Health, including the need for assistance with personal care, movement or communication.

The storage of this data by the ABS puts the privacy of Australians at risk. While the ABS claims that every possible security precaution is taken with the collection of this personal information, there are countless instances of government security breaches around the world that result in the release of personal data. For example, in 2015 the United States Office of Personnel Management reported a major breach of personal data by suspected Chinese hackers resulting in the theft of social security numbers, names, dates and places of birth, and addresses. The theft affected the personal data of as many as 21.5 million Americans.

The potential backlash from Australians not wanting to risk their personal data could be detrimental to the integrity of the census. With many calling for a boycott of the census and others suggesting not including personal data or including false data, the census has the potential to be rendered useless to statisticians.

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