What You Need To Know If You Are Planning To Avoid The Census

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Former statistician Bill McLennan has said that the 2016 Census is, "without doubt […] the most significant invasion of privacy ever perpetrated on Australians by the ABS". There are number of concerning changes to the 2016 Census which have lead to talks of boycotts, lobby group Electronic Frontiers Australia (EFA) says. Here is a rundown of what the EFA has flagged as a potential problem, what your rights and obligations are, and what can happen if you make up answers or avoid the collector.

What's new?

Every person's identity will remain linked to the data collected, forever.

There is some debate over whether the retention period is four years, or indefinite. However, as former ABS staffer Ross Hamilton points out, the ABS is proposing only to update identifiable information based on the 2020 Census, not to strip identifying information entirely after four years.

This constitutes a massive expansion compared to last Census, when this applied to only 5 per cent (1 million people) of the population.

The data about each person, from all available Census and ABS surveys, will be linked together.

This is the stated explanation for identifying information being held: that with it, the ABS may build up an extremely robust profile of each individual in the country by linking and cross-referencing the various datasets it has available to it.

Again, this previously applied to only 5 per cent (1 million people) of the population. Additional data will be expropriated from other sources and added to each person's record.

This is entirely new, and very concerning. EFA has raised concerns over the breadth and depth of data already held by political parties, and taken together with the expansions in the ABS’s data collection and retention practices, it paints a very bleak picture of the future of privacy in Australia.

Individual data about people and households will be made available to researchers. Nominally it will be de-identified, but in practice it will be so rich that it will be readily re-identifiable.

This, again, is entirely new this year. As shown in recent research, de-identification of datasets is a very complex and involved process, which very often fails. In fact, so long as groups have another form of identifying information, de-identifying anonymised datasets has been shown to be fairly simple.

In some cases, the individual data that is released to researchers will even include address, and "anonymised versions of names".

This is also new, or at least believed to be new, in 2016. As Roger Clarke notes, however, "[p]ossibly the ABS is already doing this, without public knowledge".

The EFA states that each of these features, individually, "is a gross, unjustified and unacceptable intrusion into people's privacy, and the combination of them is a serious breach of trust".

"Many Australians will be so angry at these breaches of trust that the ABS's reputation is may be irreparably damaged," EFA says. "More importantly, there is a real danger that many Australians will choose to provide inaccurate responses or to boycott the Census altogether, thereby putting at risk the entire project and the hundreds of millions of dollars it costs to run."

What are the problems with the new Census?

Name and address information is personal information. The information given in the census about religion, income, and so on is sensitive information. EFA says there is a real risk of this information being re-identified or the access to this information being increased in the future. In addition, data leaks continue to occur despite the best efforts of governments and organisations. The safest way to avoid risk is to destroy the names and addresses immediately.

As well as representing a threat to privacy, concerns have been raised about the integrity of the data obtained by the upcoming census. Although it is illegal to knowingly provide false or misleading information on a census form, it is feared that many people may avoid participating, or provide misleading information, in order to protect their privacy.

Even on a relatively small scale, acts of civil disobedience with regard to the census could seriously skew the data. With so much of the public debate and government policy in Australia being based on an understanding of the population which leans heavily on census data, EFA is concerned about the implications of a misrepresentative census.

In previous censuses, respondents were allowed to opt-in to having personally identifiable information retained, and it is the position of EFA that respondents to the 2016 Census should have the same privacy protections afforded to respondents of previous censuses, in line with community expectations.

What are your rights and obligations?

You must complete the Census, fully and accurately, although you are not obliged to provide information on your religious affiliation. The EFA is quick to state it is not a legal service, and cannot provide, in general or in specifics, legal advice. However, as reported by Independent Australia, "[names] can still still be collected on a voluntary basis but the ABS has no power to commence prosecution action for Australians not providing [their names]".

"This does not constitute legal advice", the EFA reinforces, "merely the opinion of one commentator".

Should I boycott the Census or provide false information?

There are offences associated with knowingly providing false or misleading information, or failing to complete questions on demand, during a census.

While the EFA is quick to point out it does not advocate that any person provide false or misleading information on their census form, or that any person should boycott or avoid completing the census, it does state the following "purely for informational purposes so that people will understand the implications of certain actions".

In previous Census years, a considerable number of people have adopted various avoidance approaches. Some of those people have received successive follow-ups and letters, some of those people have later been threatened with prosecution and a much smaller number of those people have actually been prosecuted.

Some of these avoidance techniques have included:

1. Avoiding being resident in any household on the Census date, Tuesday 9 August 2016 The Census is based on the premises, not the person, and hence if you aren't resident you shouldn't be recorded. This is the 'gone fishin' approach. You might find this event interesting: Community Event for Networking and Sense Under the Stars (C.E.N.S.U.S.). 2. If others in the household are submitting a return, instruct them to leave you off it. This may cause ructions within a family, but may be entirely appropriate in a shared house or flat. The wording of the Act leaves open whether the ABS may still have the power to prosecute the objector.

3. Get an envelope and a form, and send a blank form in. This will very likely result in successive re-visits from the collector, followed by threatening letters from the ABS. But if enough people were to do it, the volume would be such that the ABS would not have enough resources to follow everyone up.

4. Avoid being at home when the Collector calls. This will require great persistence, because Collectors and their supervisors are paid to chase, chase, and chase again.

5. Be absent or too busy Whenever the ABS's contractor calls or arrives, some people make themselves absent or say that they're too busy, and avoid appointments. This requires great persistence, because collectors and their supervisors are paid to chase, chase, and chase again. Eventually they may run out of time, although they have the option to argue to the magistrate that your continual busyness constitutes a refusal to answer.

6. Ask lots of questions. These may be about, for example, the process, the questions, the privacy protections, or the security of the data. This may be accompanied by saying or implying that you may be prepared to provide the data once you have satisfactory answers. Based on experience, the ABS is likely to reply slowly, and with pre-written, carefully-composed and vague text that does not answer your questions. It's commonly necessary to ask the questions again, and address letters further up the organisation. It's necessary to sustain your patience over many months until one side or the other gives up.

7. Provide made-up answers to the particular questions that are of greatest concern to you. This is not appropriate for people who do not like to be forced to lie in order to protect their privacy. Moreover, if the intention is to avoid prosecution, the lies need to be subtle enough that the ABS believes them, or considers them too difficult to prove to be lies. On the other hand, because ABS is handling 5-10 million forms, it may be impractical for them to check even for silly answers, let alone for plausible but incorrect answers.

8. Refuse to provide answers to the particular questions that are of greatest concern to you. It is likely that this will not be possible with the online form, so it would be necessary to demand a paper one. This approach appears less likely to lead to prosecution, and it seems likely that the magistrate would be both less likely to convict, and less likely to levy a significant fine.

9. Refuse to fill in the form. The ABS has the power to prosecute under Census and Statistics Act ss. 14-15, and to seek fines that the magistrate could choose to apply once, or for every day that the data is not provided. Some prosecutions do take place. In practice, only a very small proportion of the people who have failed to provide the data have ever been charged, and no report has been seen of any large fine being imposed.

Ultimately, EFA says, what you should be doing if you have concerns about these changes is contact your Federal MP or Senator.



    So with identified data, if I answer every census wildly differently going forward, they'd have fun with that wouldn't they?

      I'm no legal expert, but I'm pretty sure they would need to prove that the answers you gave were false or misleading. So as long as you say in defence, "these are the answers that most accurately describe me at the time", you could essentially get away with writing anything provided it's not so wild as to be blantant.

    So if you fill it in, the government will have information about you. And if you don't fill it in, the government will find information about you to track you down.

    Feels like a win/win to me... (sarcasm)

    Gone fishing approach no longer works. If you are in the country, you have to fill it in.

    Fun fact - the collectors are allowed to use their personal tablets to record data!

      [Citation Needed]


          I was actually asking about the "Gone fishing approach no longer works. If you are in the country, you have to fill it in." statement. (Legit asking, not being sarcastic.)


            Notice the only exemption is overseas. Travelling in remote areas would cover fishing I believe.

              Hmmmm. Interesting. I *am* going to be camping on the day. Will have to work out what to do since nobody will be resident at my apartment.

                I guess just fill it out on a different day.

                  damnit, how far out is international waters?

                  @ebms - international waters are 12 nautical miles or around 22.1km out from the coast, although there are other rights that extend out as far as the edge of the Continental Shelf.

      It's actually unintentionally worked out that I won't be in the country on Census night. I'll be in Europe on a business trip.

      Last edited 03/08/16 2:17 pm

    There's always the other option. Just fill it in and stop being paranoid.

      -joke comment removed-

      Last edited 03/08/16 11:38 am

        First up, I seriously doubt that will happen. If it does, I don't really care. I'll just ignore it, just like I ignore most marketing.

        The data is de identified. They don't get your name or exact address. However all this information will now be kept together, any future policy changes could effect how your data is handled, a security breach could leak your identifiable data, and you can guarantee it won't be long until all your data is identifiable to other govt departments and agencies. I'd give it a decade at most.

          If you work in human medical research you would know that government policy considers de-identified data to be a misnomer. The preferred term is "re-identifiable data", because it is only rare cases where data cannot be reidentified using normal methods.

          While I'm not a fan of the govt having all my data I'm not as worried about them "knowing things" as them leaking (accidentally or deliberately) my data. Someone stealing it is areal possibility. There is already a history of public servants selling peoples data. I'm also worried about the possibility of the Govt deciding at some point to actually sell the data just to top up their budget deficit.

      But then Big Government will give mah dathtah to Big Pharma and Big Telco who will use it to something something lizard mans.

      There's always the other option. Just fill it in and stop being paranoid.
      There aer those of us that lived in other countries, that had normal democratic Governments and nothing to worry about. Then extremists started getting places in the government, and a decade later ended up being voted in. Then democracy ceased, and people started being discriminated because of their religion, sexual orientation and other issues, that previously were just data of 'no importance'. Then persecuted. Then people started disappearing.

      Think it can't happen here, well nobody thought Trump would be selected, and now he is polling as a likely President. It isn't all that likely here, but anyone that remembers the McCarthy era, or has been through a country in upheaval isn't as keen with having personal data on record like this.

      Last edited 03/08/16 11:10 am

        Yep, that's pretty much the definition of paranoia right there.

          And your comment is an example of naivety.

            I'm hardly naive. I just take a more realistic approach. I don't believe that my data, on its own, is of much use to anyone. However, if my data, as part of the overall collection, assists this and future governments in determining funding for services, then I have no problem providing it.

            So far, people have said they'll use my data for personalised marketing. I can assure you that will be a waste of their time and money. Or that my data will be used to further the cause of extremists. To that, I say rubbish.

            I refuse to live in fear.

              STOP MAKING SENSE >>> STOP IT!!!!! You must live in fear of the government, the refugee family across the street and most of all fear EVERYTHING!!!

              When you live in a small town where being an Athiest is enough to stop you being hired by the local schools, then you see what can happen even when small privacy breaches happen.

              However, if my data, as part of the overall collection, assists this and future governments in determining funding for services, then I have no problem providing it.

              Ha - you really are naive.

              The more likely option is you start getting bills/calls/threats for money/credit cards/loans you didn't take when the entire data dump from the census is hacked, stolen, and sold on the black market for ID fraud purposes. In that respect, your data is very useful.

              That awkward moment when you're informed how Germany used census info to identify Jews during the holocaust...

          You realise Pauline Hanson actually got voted into the Senate? As did Clive Palmer the election before?

          You realise that Donald Trump has a real shot at being President of the United States?

          You realise that people like this can potentially push to have legislation changed to allow access to data previously collected?

            I don't really see the day Hansen's party will have a majority in the reps and Senate to be able to just push through legislation.

            Last edited 03/08/16 5:58 pm

              The problem with a tight election though is a group like One Nation doesn't need a majority to push their agenda. They'll basically be "bribed" with concessions in order to get their support on decisions. It's been happening with the independents for the last 10 or 15 years :(

                One Nation has 4 seats, that gives them an amazing amount of power.

        Exactly! Yet people scream out here i am take my information freely.
        James bond doesnt even need to exist anymore lol social media took operative survielances place.

      so we fill in this one accurately, the census droned dutifully load up all the census data from every past census and associate it with past responses and then tuck it away safely for the various government departments to mine it for whatever info they feel they need - and it'll be much more safely retained than the Turkish data .. 50 million citizens data hacked and leaked .. I do not trust Australian public servants that much sorry.

    I dont watch Tv and I dont listen to the radio so I only found out about this yesterday.
    When do the forms get sent out? im not chasing the damn thing up if I have to pick one up from a Govt office or whatever.

      Not sure, but I believe you should get something in the mail with a code that you can use to fill the form online.

        I do suspect my mailbox was missed then. no forms received, no code available

          They've only started mailing since August, so early days yet. Having said that, you have to request a paper form this time around, and all the elderly are doing so and clogging up the phone lines. From what I've read, it's a shambles atm.

            Yeah, my dad tried calling 4 times yesterday and kept getting the the "try again later" message.

            They started mailing earlier than August. I got my code in the mail last Thursday or Friday.

    As a foreign born australian If you break the law you will have your citizenship revoked and be deported.
    As an Australian born citizen you will loose the right to vote if you break the law.
    You dont want to be subject to scrutiny by the government? Leave before you break the law.

      Neither of those things are true. Your tinfoil is showing, brah.

        Australia has mandatory deportation for foreign citizens (including permanent residents) who are convicted to serve 12 months or more.

        Australian citizens in jail for sentences longer than 3 years are disqualified from voting. Prior to 2007 this applied to all sentences.

      I thought that the only ways to lose your voting rights were to revoke your citizenship or to be judged mentally incapable of understanding the voting process

        There's a process? 0_o

          The Process: Its called a cue. You stand in a line and suspicious people you wouldnt trust with your wallet check your name off on a list. Then you get handed pieces of paper and you surrender your right to represent yourself politically to parasites who think they have a god given right to decide for you and lie to your face.
          Its okay though...because there is this BBQ as you leave and they have cooked sausages.

            Cue = a stick you hit billiard balls with.
            Queue = a line of people

    I'm not paranoid but ... that seems to be the consensus of this census.

    Just a few things I don't understand. We got a letter with our passcode on it for the online survey. What if we for example do not have the Internet or the website crashes, Internet doesn't work. Do I get a follow up from a collector?

    How does the government know where I live (my electoral address is old and hasn't been updated in years). Our old house is empty an no one will answer there.

    What if I log in and use fake names for this address, will it still show as me personally not having submitted it?

      Yes, you'll get a field officer knocking on your door!!

    I don't really understand what the problem is, if you have a tax file number they already know this information. Putting it all on another form makes no difference.

      Tax file number doesn't have religion and other private data attached.

        LOL yes it does, right after you combine it with data from facebook and google which i'm sure the data analysts in various govt depts already do. It's just one small way in a treasure trove of methods that the AFP get intelligence on terrorists living amongst us.

          I'm not on facebook, and don't use google, so how is that data attached?

        Religion is a bad example in my opinion. I could write down "christian" on one paper, then vote the next day and write "jedi" then a week later write "atheist", because religion is just that - my own choice and I can change my religion whenever I feel like it. As for private data - if you're paranoid, I assume you're one of those people who avoids all social networks and never communicates via email or uses google search. If you aren't paranoid like me, then you probably post private data on social networks all the time without realising in (photos & tagging, conversations with other people, facebook events etc) and you probably do so via emails - all areas that could potentially be hacked.

      If they already know this information then I don't need to fill out the census no? They already have it right?


    The key part of the phrase "invasion of privacy ever perpetrated on Australians by the ABS" is a bit of a laff, as there are much more sinister things afoot.

    I wonder does the average Joe appreciate how the AEC invades, ruins and otherwise breaches the right to privacy of the citizens? As someone who used to work in very extensive investigations this is far more of a worry to me personally than a silly survey with the option to answer correctly....

      And now the AEC will have another identifiable data mine.

    However, as reported by Independent Australia, “[names] can still still be collected on a voluntary basis but the ABS has no power to commence prosecution action for Australians not providing [their names]”.

    Good luck with that. Your name is a question on the census like any other, and the ABS has the power to prosecute you under Section 14 of the Census and Statistics Act 1905. Religion is the only exception.

      Also says knowingly provide false information. I think I'm going to get really drunk on census night.

    I'm just going to answer every question with 'Hodor' in different varieties. Where do you live? Hodor. What is your religion? Hoooooodooooorrrrrr!

    Last edited 03/08/16 10:34 am

    Finally a data set that lets me track down sith lords and burn down their houses.

    On a lighter note I know the last time the government set up a website and asked (roughly)10 mil people to use it at the same time. I can suspect it isn't going to handle the traffic?

    What's the fuss?
    If you have a phone and/or an online account, a driving license, a bank account, a tax file number, a birth certificate, a medical record, a passport, a library card or a government benifit, then the powers that be will have all they need to know about you.
    Facebook, Ebay, Amazon and Google have the same and more.

    The ABS needs to know where 23,000,000+ bodies were parked on census night.
    It's more about population densities and future planning.for housing, roads, Macca's and Harvey Norman shopping centres.
    All the other info is for standard everyday crosschecking to catch out the tricksters.

      That is what the data may be used for now, but it is flabby on what it is allowed to be used for in the future. Plus it is a major hacking target, and they have a very poor record on security.

        I agree with the flabby for the future.
        What data archives futures aren't?
        Data security breaches around the supposedly most secure government depts are not uncommon.

      To get the info re planning, roads etc. why do they need the person's name?

        Maybe they want to name a road after you ;)

        Everytime you give your name , birthdate, address etc.etc. to an institution on paper, online or to an official who asks by word of mouth.........it's cross-checked for matches or any discrepancy with what info is already in the networked systems relating to you.

      None of that actually happens.
      Companies that you mentioned use their own data.

      Last edited 03/08/16 1:22 pm

        Sorry poweredbyme, but I've never yet filled a out census form for JB HiFi or Woolworths.
        Companies large and small get population spread figures and growth areas from the ABS just like local government and any one else who legitimately (or not) needs specific nose counts.

          I think you missed the point I was making.

          Woolworth equivalent of this would be the Everyday rewards card and so on...

          Last edited 03/08/16 4:15 pm

    $180 per day in fines is "all i needed to know" and for that I will happily give them my data.

    The future of privacy in Australia is the past. Privacy was already dead about 10 years ago and if you are still hanging on to some ill-informed fantasy that you have "privacy", then you are very much on the fringes of modern society.

      That's the best solution, accept things as inevitable and do nothing.

      what an idiotic view. The slow erosion of the people rights for the sake of safety or anything else is the path to slavery or a 1984 style nightmare.

        People have more rights now than they have had at any other time in human history o' Gost Who Walks.
        Yeah, hair and clothing styles of 1984 would be a friggin nightmare.
        But you're right about slavery.
        It's 2016 and heaven only knows how many people now have no choice but to go do a job that they absolutely hate and get no joy from. That's as good as slavery.

          '1984' is a novel by George Orwell and has nothing to do with big hair and neon clothing. Perhaps read the book, and then reassess phantom's comment.

            Forgive my failed facetiousness Sylvan Nest.
            I discovered Orwell in 1974. Several of his works are still in slow rotation on my bookshelves including 1984. The same shelf where I keep my foil hat and my mail order Phantom skull ring from 1954.

      I do agree...Privacy have been gone or past away in Australia.

    Which is why I am not on Facebook, use Duckduckgo instead of google and don't have an Amazon or Ebay account.

    I don't see the problem with de-identifying myself when i enter the form.
    I will put accurate information for everything except for my name.
    They have an accurate representation of the person living at the property (age, jedi religion, etc) just not an accurate name.

      Hey, Privacy McPrivacyface, good to meet twin of nomenclature. High five!

    Surely your not that ignorant.
    If you have ever paid a bill in your name ie power water sat tv phone bill drivers licence they have you. And thats just the old scool way.
    The new methods are by far more intensive and intrusive.
    Everytime you drive your car (automatic plate readers as well as automated facial recognition cameras), go out in public (biometric facial security and plain old network cameras), use your phone /pc (metadata and ping history from towers) or even own a mobile (every phone in australia is registered on the national database and every single phone ismonitored recorded and retained under the new laws) , use the internet (metadata retention profile) pay electronically or are paid electronically.......and thats just scratching the surface.
    North Koreas mass surveilance has NOTHING on Australia and the funny thing is there are more people concerened about the rights to privacy for North Koreans than Australians.
    And still everyday more and more people are freely and willingly giving up more and more sensitive information ie facebook, pokemon go.., etc.
    So you not updatinng your address has very very little to do with the methods involved and used every second of every day.

      I don't think you've taken into account the power of a tin foil hat!

        Mine's buzzin' with a steady glow and Jedi is ringing in my ears.

          Sounds like you might have some loose foil!

      That's a great post and very true, upvote for you.

      Anyone who thinks they are safe from the govt just because they don't have a facebook account is kidding themselves. LOL

      To those who think that not putting their name on the census will keep them safe:

      To be truly safe, you would need to a live on a private property out in the sticks, hunt for your food, use a gas refrigerator and stove (because you can't have electricity), maybe a solar panel with battery backup for powering your laptop, have gas and fuel delivered to you COD (because you can't visit a servo with all those cameras around), use a battery powered radio, there's just one problem:

      There's no feasible way to truly anonymously get connected to the internet. So you won't be posting anymore on whirlpool either. Even prepaid mobile phone credit has to be recharged sometime, and that credit has to come from money stored somewhere.

      The SA Police have just got some funding to start rolling out facial recognition on CCTV here in SA. I understand it's been in the eastern states for some time, and of course overseas.

    All the past ones they have come to my door with the paper one
    I advised i do it online on the day
    I have never done it and i have never heard back from them!
    The new letterers are addressed to the householder, so they really don't know who i am anyways

      Those letters look so much like junk mail I expect a lot of them went straight into the bin without opening.

    All these people saying "They already have the information on you anyway so what's the big deal?"

    If that's the case then I don't need to fill out the census. Simple. If they don't have the information, they're not getting anything accurate from me.

      The information they already have on you is your name and address.

      They don't know everything else about how you live, and this data governments need to make effective decisions on things like schools, public transport, the NBN rollout, roads, australia post, the garbage collection and all other decisions that governments at every level make.

    I havent seen it yet.. but if I dont like a question I may resort to using Federal Government security classification dissemination limitation markers and fill in any field with...

    Sensitive: Personal

    Lying about my meth lab or getting busted for running one ... dilemmas

    If anyone says they wont do anything with this information, please remember, the Nazi used Census information to find those who were Jewish. The newest "threat" is Islam and there will be people who will use that information for unintended reasons.

    Government Security Breach - Hackers stolen 2016 Australian Census Data.

    Feel free to buy a copy for $50 on the Dark Interwebs.

      Oh noes, someone will find out I sleep with Mr Snuggles (my comfort blanket) every night.

      Maybe they'll stop stealing my mail now.

    I don't understand all the fuss about this. People post personal info to Facebook, Google all the time and many mobile apps have access to data too. Your name is on social networks and your address gets posted on events etc - why the big deal? If someone hacks it, so what? Many large companies have been hacked before, people froze their credit cards - big deal, they were back to normal lives the next day.

    Fast forward 6 months and everyone will have forgotten about it as they'll have found something else to make viral.

      The difference is that providing that information to Facebook is personal choice and not enforceable by law.

      I for one don't provide that information to Facebook.

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