This Year's Australian Census Won't Be Anonymous

For the first time since its inception in 1911, the Australian Census in August this year will be forgoing the usual practise of destroying any identifying information of respondents. Since 2001 we have had the option of deciding if our identifying information can be retained. This year, we won't get a choice.

This decision was actually quietly announced on the Australian Bureau of Statistics website on 18 December 2015.

"The Australian Bureau of Statistics has decided to retain names and addresses collected in the 2016 Census of Population and Housing in order to enable a richer and dynamic statistical picture of Australia through the combination of Census data with other survey and administrative data," the site reads.

The ABS says that retaining the personal information will help gain "greater insight". Examples given include education data providing insight into employment outcomes from different various educational pathways and health data helping to improve understanding and support of people who require mental health services.

"The retention of addresses will also support the ABS Address Register enabling more efficient survey operations, reducing the cost to taxpayers and the burden on Australian households," the ABS states.

It says the decision to retain personal information was "informed by public submissions, public testing and the conduct of a Privacy Impact Assessment."

To address the very real concerns of privacy that have been -- and continue to be -- raised, ABS says it is "committed to the protection of the privacy and confidentiality of everyone who completes the Census".

A Privacy Impact Assessment was commissioned to identify considerations related to privacy, confidentiality and security and to put strategies in place to mitigate any risks.

"The Privacy Impact Assessment assessed the level of risk to personal privacy, considering the protections in place, as very low," the ABS states. "The risks identified are mitigated by storing names and addresses separately from other Census data as well as separately from each other."

"The risks are further mitigated by governance and security arrangements the ABS already has in place. These arrangements were found to robustly manage data, protect privacy and guard against misuse of information."

Although keeping personal information from the census is within the confines of the law, the law also states that the ABS has to keep the data secure, making sure there is zero disclosure of identifying information about respondents.

"The ABS has been accredited as a safe environment for statistical data integration projects," it assures. "The ABS will use well-established governance infrastructure and procedures to manage the approval, conduct and review of statistical data integration projects using Census data."

The ABS says it will be removing names and addresses from other personal and household information after data collection and processing, storing them separately.

"No-one working with the data will be able to view identifying information (name and address) at the same time as other Census information (such as occupation or level of education)," ABS states.

"Senior-level committee" will have access to names and addresses, and the circumstances surrounding this access "will be subject to strict information security provisions".

Regular audits of the privacy processes will be conducted, ABS says.

Information about how to access the Census Privacy Statement, which details ABS's plans to retain and use names and addresses, will be available to all Census forms, via Census field officers, the Census Inquiry Service and the ABS website.

The ABS says it is "completely transparent" around the collection, protection and use of data.



    “The Australian Bureau of Statistics has decided to retain names and addresses collected in the 2016 Census of Population and Housing in order to enable a richer and dynamic statistical picture of Australia through the combination of Census data with other survey and administrative data,” the site reads.
    “No-one working with the data will be able to view identifying information (name and address) at the same time as other Census information (such as occupation or level of education),” ABS states.

    These two quotes seem a bit contradictory. The first states that the ABS are not de-identifying the collected data, but the second makes it sound like they are (yet still storing the identifying parts separately). I'm confused as to how they can perform more powerful analysis with identifying information that isn't linked to the other data in any way.

    I expect it went down like this: "We'll store the names and addresses in a separate database and use a unique key to link them to the other data for internal purposes only. That way, if a hacker gets a hold of both databases, they'll never think to follow foreign keys between separate databases!"

      This is a brilliant question and one they have not really answered. It's complete horse dung their claim. I think you suggestion as to their implementation is likely close to the mark. Although I doubt they even thought to use a seperate database. More likely the same database - different table and the their apps cannot access them at the same time. Doesn't stop their IT department or anybody with a modicum of understanding from accessing it. They're kidding themselves and by extension the Australian public.

      The example the director of the ABS quoted yesterday (matching death records with census indigenous ethnicity data keyed by name to study indigenous life expectancy) basically demonstrated something will cross reference the data. If it's an app, then the app developers can access that data and if the app developers and administrators can access that data concurrently then potentially anybody can with a policy change or a breach.

    I've got no issues with this. UK census are one of the most helpful ways of tracing your family back (assuming your family is from the UK) in the 1900s.

    Won't be taking part in this then!

      neither.. shame, i used to enjoy filling them in.

    Anyone who thinks the government can keep your data secure and respect your privacy needs to watch House of Cards.

    Or for a real world example, look at how the stupid NHS in the UK leaked the records of 600,000 patients.

      When was the last time ABS had a data breach?

        When a grad gave his uni mate working at a bank sensitive economic data before its public release and make a good enough killing on currency markets it was spotted.

        2014. (

    Lots of people carrying on about this but so many people post way more info on Facebook that I don't know what their issue is. You don't need to hack a database if you can look through the average persons' social media feed.

      People choose to post on Facebook.

        Exactly. So many people have relinquished any privacy in the name of social media that I'm not surprised the government, who already knows who you are and what you do, has modified the census. You are not anonymous. You never were.

          Choice versus compulsion. It's crossing another line. No teverybody is on Facebook and those that are choose how much information they want to share.

      Lots of people don't post much personal info on Facebook. Lots of people have false names on Facebook (regardless of what their policy is, Facebook almost never takes action unless someone reports you). Lots more people don't use Facebook at all.

    Wow... just, wow... Obviously no government will make any sweeping amendments to any of the governance infrastructure currently set up to protect citizens in the name of, oh, "national security concerns". *cough cough*

    Census participation and therefore the usefulness of the data seems likely to plunge if / once knowledge of this manages to become mainstream...

      I'm pretty sure there's a fine for not completing it.

        You don't have to fill it out. You just have to hand it back and say that you refuse to answer. Failing that, just answer dishonestly...

        There was no fine in 2011:

        However, both US and UK govts require census to be filled out by law and since all of our laws follow either of those two, expect it to be the case here at some stage.

        You could fill out it dishonestly, but that could have all sorts of implications on you receiving government payments and other consequences. Each census form comes with a unique number sent to each address, so they know who it is, and from memory you need this unique number to fill out the online version as well.

          Although they could put the information together and correlate who is living where and claiming what benefits, there is always the excuse that you weren't at home on the night if you didn't want to full it out. or fill it out dishonestly.

          Knowing how government departments work very well, and their inability to even share a data centre rack with another agency of a similar risk profile/service delivery, it would take them many years to integrate the data from ABS into Centrelink.....

      When has ABS had a data breach?

        2014 (

      As others have stated, this is standard for US and UK. Their participation rates seem to be fine.

    Most "mainstream" people simply won't care.

    How do you think data retention laws passed both houses so easily?

    Does this mean i will have to curtail my creative writing exercise?

    I can still be a Jedi though, right?

    or just get the form and you just happen to have really bad handwriting and can't tick just one box, or you were really drunk when filling it in in crayon... Your Honor...

    If you don't want to complete/avoid the census do the following:
    - Go on a holiday overseas on the date of the census (safest option)
    - Go on a holiday inside Australia... and go camping on the night of the census.

    If you can't do the above, you can still do the following
    - Don't answer the door to any ABS workers.
    - Ignore any requests for you to call an ABS worker if they leave a card.
    - Tell the ABS worker that you are busy and come back another time. If they ask when would suit arrange a time - and then ensure no one is home at that time.
    - If you have to talk to an ABS worker, make it sound like you are intoxicated.
    - Demand credentials to prove who the ABS worker is. Don't accept any ID badges - they can be forged. Only accept calling the ABS directly and request ID conformation.
    - Request the paper version of the census... even if you have a computer.
    - Mark the census paper with a black texta on the alignment marks (near top and bottom of pages).
    - write any text as illegibly as possible.
    - Don't print in each box provided for each letter.

    The above is all legal options - hopefully they will give up at this stage.
    They may supply you with a letter directing you to complete the census and giving to a due date to have it done by. After this you have to choose whether you are willing to go to jail over this.

    Alternatively you can lie on the census. This is also illegal and you are libel to get fined especially for things that can be cross-matched from other data sources.

    I choose to not entrust my privacy to the ABS. Just like I don't trust my privacy to advertising companies.

    You DONT need personal identifying data for statistics. Has the Australian Bureau of STATISTICS now become part of ASIO ? Why can't Governments just for once be up front with this shit and let the people decide if they feel the Governments use will be a benefit or not. Why do those elected by us to Govern keep doing things that if put to a general vote would never get accepted by the people they are meant to serve. And please don't give me some garbage about you having nothing to hide. EVERYBODY has things to hide. Go and watch George Orwell's 1984 and you start to get some idea of where society is destined if we dont push our Governments to stop their invasions on our privacy's.

      Longitudinal studies of trends over successive census - there is a lot of useful data to be gained from tracking a specific demographic change than the average.

      So fudge it, and then bitch and moan like a child missing out on a cookie when the government makes plans bassed on the faulty data you gave them.

        You miss my point entirely. I do believe that the census is a good thing as it is invaluable for planning infrastructure, schools, etc. etc. My point was you do NOT need to have peoples names to get that out of the data. The ONLY reason you need to tie peoples names to the data is to know more about a specific individual, ie. keep a file on you. I'm under no illusions that a lot of data is already on file about each of us, but the census goes much more personal with the questions it will ask. Something as simple as what hours you work.....nothing to hide you say until hackers get the data and know when to come and help themselves to your belongings because they know when you will be out of the house....and so on and so on. The fact is the Government cannot guarantee the security of the data and thereby expose everyone to criminal exploits.

    Absolutely ridiculous. There's absolutely no justification for not anonymizing this information. If a business tried to do it they'd be in legal hot water in seconds. And in that case you'd have volunteered the information to them, where participating in the census is mandatory.

    Hell, the last census the ABS tried to collect blood samples too. Are they going to do that again as well? Get a detailed DNA profile of every Australian or something?

    and a petition to get things rolling!!!

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