Senator Xenophon refuses to complete Census

A former NSW deputy privacy commissioner and a senator have added their names to the list of people refusing to complete the online Census due to privacy and security concerns.
Written by Corinne Reichert, Contributor

Australian Senator Nick Xenophon has announced his refusal to provide his name in the Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS) 2016 Census due to privacy and security concerns about his data.

"The ABS has failed to make a compelling case why names must be provided, and stored for four years, and unlike any other Census in this nation's history since that first Census on the 2nd of April 1911, all names will be turned into a code that ultimately can be used to identify you," Xenophon said.

"So, it seems, rather than being a snapshot of the nation, this Census will now morph into a mobile CCTV that follows every Australian. And it has come to this because of a woeful consultation process that not only lacked transparency, but some would say verged on the disingenuous."

Those who do not complete the Census can face prosecution under the Census and Statistics Act involving fines of AU$180 per day, which Xenophon said he is happy to risk by taking the opportunity to turn it into a test case on the matter.

Xenophon added that he will also be pushing for retrospective amendments to the legislation in order to protect people who do not provide their name from prosecution.

"The government should be requesting our consent, rather than requiring our names through coercion. Australians expect the rule of law, not ruled by law," Xenophon said.

Former NSW Deputy Privacy Commissioner Anna Johnston added her voice to the call, saying she will be boycotting the Census due to "moral" privacy-oriented reasons.

"The short version is this: Yes to a national snapshot. No to detailed data-linking on individuals. That's not what a Census is for," Johnston said.

"Although there are certainly heightened privacy and security risks of accidental loss or malicious misuse with storing names and addresses, the deliberate privacy invasion starts with the use of that data to create a Statistical Linkage Key (SLK) for each individual, to use in linking data from other sources. Please don't believe that SLKs offer anonymity. SLKs are easy to generate, with the same standard used across multiple datasets.

"Anyone with access to these types of health and human services datasets can search for individuals by generating and searching against their SLK. All you need to know is their first and last names, gender and date of birth."

Last week, the ABS assured the government that there has never been a breach of Census data, and went as far as saying that there never will be a breach.

"Never been a breach, the ABS assures us that this won't happen into the future with this Census, and governments of all persuasion take that information and assurances on board," Australian Minister for Small Business Michael McCormack said in spite of ABS experiencing 14 other data breaches over the last few years.

"The ABS has never had a privacy breach with Census data showing, and they have assured me as the minister responsible, they've assured the government, that they have every protocol in place, every process in place to ensure that there isn't a breach this time."

Shadow Assistant Minister to the Opposition Leader for Tasmania and Shadow Assistant Minister for Ageing Senator Helen Polley last week told ZDNet that the ABS should not collect names; rather, citizens should be given an identity number.

"I don't understand the necessity of having to complete the Census with your name," Polley said last Tuesday.

"People have a right to be concerned; there is no reason why you should have to give your full name. You should be able to be identified with a number."

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