the census should be delayed

The damage is already done. Now it’s just a question of how severe it’s going to be. Australia’s most important statistical record has been compromised by a counterproductive and poorly argued decision to retain name and address data for everyone who is legally obliged to fill in our personal details and life circumstance on 9 August.

First published at the Guardian

The proposal to keep names and addresses on file so that the census can be linked to other datasets was proposed and rejected in 2006 and 2011 on the grounds that the risks to privacy through malice, incompetence or misadventure were simply too great.

Our office uses census data practically every day. Our costed plan to end homelessness is premised on 2011 census figures, and so is our work on public transport and urban redevelopment. The ability to access reliable demographic information is something policymakers have relied on for decades. Until fairly recently, most Australians trusted the census, and the overwhelming majority of us – outbreaks of the religion of Jedi notwithstanding – contribute diligently to the snapshot of Australia once every five years.

This is one of the reasons I am so pissed off with the damage the Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS) is doing to its own reputation and the integrity of the dataset. By ploughing ahead despite well-founded warnings by privacy experts, digital rights organisations and security professionals, the ABS has invoked a growing campaign of civil disobedience that will inevitably compromise the whole rationale for the census.

As a cost-saving measure, the process now steers people to complete the census electronically. It’s likely that this will raise the barrier to participation.

You can still fill in a paper form, but now you have to request it, and by all accounts the “hotline” the ABS set up to take these calls is in meltdown and it’s nearly impossible to get through. People who don’t easily fit the ABS categories, like nonconformity with gender binaries, have to take additional steps; they either need to request the paper form or call the Census Inquiry Service to request a special login just so they can answer “other” to the gender question online. People who don’t check their snail mail all that often could miss the memo altogether and be subject to fines.

Bill McLennan is the former head of the Australian Bureau of Statistics, and his scathing takedown of this proposal is well worth a read. His assessment is that the ABS cannot legally compel people to provide their names and addresses.

The ABS, represented by the treasurer, has not legislated these changes. They reached the decision after conducting a rapid internal assessment, which the Australian Privacy Foundation said was flawed and in no way independent. No human rights or civil society organisations were consulted in that process.

In an age where privacy is under assault from all quarters, does this even matter? It does. The United States – Australia’s Five Eyes mass-surveillance partner – routinely allowed the Department of Homeland Security to access census data on Arab Americans. Further back in history, in 1940s US, census data was infamously used to locate Japanese Americans for locking up in internment camps.

Closer to home, in the face of spirited movements against native forest destruction, coalmining and coal seam gas, state governments have embarked on a rush of legislation to ban various kinds of nonviolent protest. The federal government and an enfeebled opposition passed laws that could see doctors and journalists imprisoned for exposing child abuse in detention centres. Ditto for mandatory data retention.

The federal government took us to a double-dissolution election under the pretext of a bill that strips fundamental human rights from building and construction workers. We have a resurgent far-right busily mainstreaming demands for an end to Muslim immigration. This is not an age in which governments, present or future, can be trusted, either with the powers that they have or their willingness to change the laws governing how census data could be accessed or used in the future. In the years since the last census, the willingness of governments to invade our privacy without consultation has become painfully clear.

The safest way to protect digital privacy and identity is not to collect more information than is absolutely necessary. If personal information is collected, it should be retained no longer than is absolutely necessary. Organisations and individuals with vast expertise in the area have been compromised; the US Department of State, Sony Corporation, the Department of Immigration and Border Protection, the Democratic party of the US, the director of the CIA.

The Guardian reported the ABS itself has had 14 data breaches since 2013. A longitudinal record of names, addresses and intimate personal details is a tempting target for anyone from criminals to identity thieves to hate groups to foreign governments. And of course there is the internal risk – police forces and government departments in Australia are compelled to respond to staff misuse of private information alarmingly often.

The ABS’s insistence that name and address records will be separately stored is a poor substitute for destruction of the data, which itself is a poor substitute for keeping that information retention optional in the first place.

In the lead-up to 9 August, every person has to weigh up the decision to complete the census. Leaving your name and address blank on a paper form is an option some are considering. If you’re overseas you’re off the hook. You may decide to try your luck with a Community Event for Networking and Sense Under the Stars (C.E.N.S.U.S.). Maybe you’ll take your chances and just boycott it completely, or perhaps you think that these fears are overblown and are content to just fill it out.

Whatever your answer, the ABS’s refusal to engage in a public process and the hasty and secretive implementation of proposals that have twice previously been rejected, has left people standing against this proposal with little recourse aside from civil disobedience.

There is still time for sense to prevail: the ABS should delay census day for a couple of weeks, fix this mess and restore the high degree of confidence and trust that it has earned over many years. At the very least, the ABS should make it clear they won’t be prosecuting people who leave their name and address fields blank.

Choose to do otherwise, and the ABS will have no one to blame but itself for the 2016 #censusfail.