Census in context: Do we actually need to worry about our privacy? 

Tuesday 9 August is Census night. You may have heard some fuss around this, especially about the privacy implications of collecting name and address details. After taking in both sides of the issue, here are my thoughts.

Firstly, the Census has collected name and address details since 1911 – this isn’t new.

What’s changing this year is that the information will be kept for around four years instead of 18 months, and online tools are being used to collect Census data. The ABS states this will,

“…provide a richer and dynamic statistical picture of Australia through the combination of Census data with other survey and administrative data.”

Glenn, The Census Expert at id.com.au makes the excellent point that, “The Census has never been anonymous at the point of collection – only the data output is anonymous, as it’s published in aggregate.” There is no intent to change this stance despite the change in collection practices.

The ABS currently uses probabilistic pattern matching across the Census data to derive insights. However, in a world where Netflix uses data to produce successful TV shows, this approach appears to be immature when contrasted with more sophisticated, commercial processes for data collection and matching.

Using names and addresses will allow, for example, analysis that can show how parental levels of income affect the jobs of school leavers, or how investments in apprenticeships versus undergraduate degrees versus TAFE traineeships have performed, and therefore whether the country is putting money into the right areas of education.

Some privacy commentators argue that the collection of personal names and addresses is an invasion of privacy. In a recent itNews article, the former Australian statistician Bill McLennan argues that the ABS has no mandate to collect names, as they won’t produce any statistics based on name and address. Other recent government-led activities such as the Telecommunications (Interception and Access) Amendment (Data Retention) Act 2015 add fuel to arguments that our government isn’t interested in respecting citizens’ rights to privacy. The inability of the government to pass mandatory data breach notification legislation also adds weight to this argument, as published by Bernard Keane in Crikey.

I don’t believe the ongoing retention and use of personal information is a decision that’s been taken lightly. The ABS has been rightly criticised for the timing of its initial announcement (18 Dec 2015), and its inability to clearly articulate how personal information will be protected. However, I think its opponents fail to provide realistic, tangible alternatives that would allow the development of evidence-based policy.

Many multi-national commercial organisations already have access to the types of insights the ABS is seeking. I think the underlying question is, to what extent do we want government bodies to have access to granular insights to improve public policy outcomes?

Personally, I would rather give our government every chance to develop meaningful policy responses.

What I would like to see is a clear value statement from the ABS for citizens, about what Australians will receive in exchange for their personal information. This could be in the form of expanding current communications to clearly state (in a journalistic style, not data-centric) the limitations of current approaches, and what could be done about what can’t be done now.

There’s still time for this – here’s hoping we see it before Census night.

Dr Vanessa Douglas-Savage

Consulting Director