by Jacob Greber AFR
Australia’s former top statistician and a leading privacy group have slammed the Australian Bureau of Statistics for quietlyÂ reinstatingÂ a plan defeated a decade ago to retain names and addresses from the 2016Â census, opening the door to future governments accessing sensitive personal information.
The move, which was done without fanfare and announced on the Friday before Christmas week, throws the credibility of the $272Â million Census into question because the public may no longer trust the government enough to provideÂ full and frank answers to highly detailed personal, religious and financial questions.
Bill McLennan, the nation’sÂ top statistician between 1995 and 2000,Â and the Australian Privacy FoundationÂ say there is no way to guarantee a future government won’tÂ change the law to access the personalised data.
“They’re not going to sell this to the public when it realises what’s going on,” said Mr McLennan,Â who said he was speaking out because he wants to avoid this year’s census going down as a costly disaster.
Noting that around 19 per cent of Australians surveyed by the ABS in 2015 expressed a lack of trust in the institution, Mr McLennan toldÂ The Australian Financial ReviewÂ there was a considerable risk that a large number of people wouldÂ engage in “an active civil disobedience” campaign. “You may as well not run the census.”
Kat Lane, vice chair of the independentÂ Australian Privacy Foundation, describedÂ the move as an “appallingÂ breach of trust,” sayingÂ AustraliansÂ will be shocked at the “intrusiveness” of the ABS’s plans.
“We give this census information so they can plan for our futures – not so they use it inappropriately,” Ms Lane said. “It was never supposed to be a data warehouseÂ of information, particularly with names where you can connect the dots.”
Outrage at theÂ move is the latest in a series of missteps in recent years by the bureau, which has come under fire for making ill-advised changes to the crucial monthly labour force survey, and saw its credibility severely damaged by an insider currency trading scandal in 2015 involving one of its officials. There have also been complaints that the bureau has allowed its “institutional knowledge” to be eroded followingÂ successive years of budget constraints.
The bureau says it willÂ retain names and addresses from this year’sÂ census,Â rather than destroying them, and willÂ thenÂ createÂ “anonymous keys” to allow individual’s data to beÂ linked with other pools of information.
Duncan Young, head of the 2016 census program, insisted there was public support for the move based onÂ focus groups conducted by the bureau that showed people want the ABS to engage inÂ broader data matching.
“The message we got from people is that this is the kind of thing they expect of us,” he told the Financial Review.
Mr Young added thatÂ the bureau hadÂ a “long history” of managing sensitive data, and that it would use the lead up to the August 9 census date to educateÂ the public about “security mechanisms, efficiency gains and theÂ way we get greater value from theÂ data,Â and about the way we store and manage the census.”
Despite those assurances, there remain serious questions about whether the public would support the changesÂ given that only around 50 per cent of Australians voluntarily “opt-in” to a program that allowsÂ names and addresses and census data to beÂ kept by the National Archives for 100 years before being released.
That choice was introduced in 2001, and the lack of a large majority of support for it suggests there is still “a significant underlying level of community concern about storing census records,” saidÂ Mr McLennan. “Of course the setting up of a name and address register by the ABS is a much more sensitive issue.”
The bureau’s decision comes 11 years after it was forced to dump the same plan following a damning report -Â commissioned by the ABS itselfÂ – byÂ privacy expert and former federal privacy commissionerÂ Nigel Waters was reported by the Financial Review. Mr WaltersÂ warned that despite the ABS’s privacy and secrecy safeguards, there was noÂ guaranteeÂ a future government wouldn’t change the law to access the sensitive information
MrÂ McLennan said retainingÂ names and addressesÂ wouldÂ undermineÂ a long-standing foundation for the census that isÂ based on trust between households and the government that the information would be used purely for statistical purposes.
“WhatÂ happensÂ when a future governmentÂ suddenlyÂ decides it wants information about terrorism in Australia and passes legislation with one line that gives them thatÂ information,” Mr McLennanÂ said. “That can happen in half a day.”
Ms Lane, from the privacy foundation, blasted the bureau for the way in which it hasÂ introduced the change, which was announced in the traditional end-of-year media vacuum created by the Christmas break, and accused it of failingÂ to consult widely with civil, non-government organisations and community groups about the change.
“They’veÂ seriously abused theÂ trust of the Australian people and done it in such a wayÂ that the Australian Privacy Foundation didn’tÂ get aÂ chance to submitÂ a response. They never even wrote to us,” she said.
According to the bureau’s website, the ABS’s proposal was reported in just two media outlets, a public service news website and an information technology site, and that it receivedÂ only three public submissions, all of them opposing the plan.
“It’s highly unlikely that theÂ general population has any idea what has been proposed,” Mr McLennan said.Â Â “A media release from the ABS on Friday 18 December announcing the proposal, seemingly, wasn’t reported anywhere in the press.
“The sooner the problem is realised, the better chance the ABS has of implementing change and selling a workable census proposal to the public.”
Originally published AFR March10, 2016