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.