Is your Census information safe? Privacy in the spotlight

Glenn - The Census Expert

Glenn is an ABS data expert with huge intellect and capacity to convert demographic data into profound insights about places. He has contributed numerous blogs and consulting projects covering economic development, housing consumption and affordability, migration, fertility, ageing, role and function of ‘place’, communities of interest and more. Glenn works with over 120 councils bringing the client perspective into the development of our information products. He is a Census data expert, having worked at the Australian Bureau of Statistics for 10 years. If there's anything Glenn doesn't know about the Census, it's probably not worth knowing - so ask Glenn!

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17 Responses

  1. Andrea Leong says:

    I’m not on board with your dismissal of people’s concerns, Glenn.

    In your March 20 blog post on the subject, you said that you didn’t notice the announcement about the longer retention period, despite following the ABS closely. Doesn’t this fact alone bother you?

    I apologise to the genealogists who you mention in that earlier blog for wishing they had no more information to work with, but a nation shouldn’t have to share personal information just because some families regret not having kept adequate records.

    Your FAQ above acknowledges that people may now wish to leave the religion question blank out of security concerns. I’m sure others will find more than just the religion question too intrusive. There will be new holes in the dataset and some deliberately inaccurate answers, thanks to the ABS’s new system. The ABS is shooting itself in the foot at best.

    Our government already imprisons children, indefinitely and offshore, with minimal oversight; and our Attorney General could not describe the telecommunications metadata that is supposedly collected for national security reasons, but which state racing ministers now wish to access. My lack of faith in either our government’s intentions or competence is not unfounded. I hope I never become desensitised to each new step towards bumbling authoritarianism.

  2. TrustnoOne says:

    “I’d happily have all my answers to the Census questions online for all to see.”
    Go on then, and don’t forget your home address and income…

  3. Check My Census says:

    You’re missing the entire point. You can downplay the level of sensitivity of the data all you want, but that’s not the concern here. Its the fact that as citizens we are having our basic human right of privacy ignored, and by law, enforcing us to divulge personal information and having it back traceable to the individual by name. I don’t care if you can find out more sensitive data about me by cross referencing my online profile, but I do find it highly offence when I have no other choice but to unwillingly give information about myself to an organisation I have no reason to trust or idea of what the information will be used for, without repercussions of breaking the law.

  4. Thanks for the comments here. There is clearly a lot of angst about this change in the community. I think the ABS could have communicated the change better in the first place. I find it interesting, given ABS’s exemplary track record in protecting confidentiality of Census and survey respondents before, and the fact that they have always collected name and address and are now just keeping them a bit longer. Is it the fact that there is data linking going to happen that has people so concerned?

    I also really don’t see how attractive the dataset would be to hackers given its general demographic nature.

    Some have said having your name, address and date of birth on the one file could be used to steal an identity etc. If you’re worried about this – note that the question on date of birth also allows you to enter just “Age last birthday”, so you don’t actually have to give your date of birth at all.

    And it’s worth noting that over 60% of Australia’s population marked “Yes” in 2011 to Question 60, the time capsule question, which entails having your Census record with name and address included (and attached to your answers, which the retention for linking purposes will keep separate) kept by the National Archives for release in 99 years. I will certainly be answering “Yes” to this again, as it’s a fantastic resource for future generations. So the majority of the Australian population don’t seem to have a problem with this.

    • Andrea Leong says:

      “Over 60%”? So, over a third don’t want to participate in the time capsule initiative. The ABS should let people opt in to the longer retention period and data linking.

  5. Annabelle says:

    Do you really think Malcolm Turnbull is suddenly going to divulge his income when he admits he hides it off shore to avoid paying tax? Only a few months ago the ABS announced it was scrapping the census completely. Now it’s a data mining exercise to track and map every citizen. What changed? Worthless one minute, now so important they will fine you if you use a false name or give a false answer. They must be matching our data if they already have the answers.

    • Well the thing about income is that it’s collected in broad ranges, with the top range being $3,000 or more per week. So whether your income is $160k p.a. or in the millions (and even if you hide most of it) you fall into the same range anyway. So it’s a bit of a non-issue.

      You’re right that the ABS was thinking of cancelling the Census last year. We are glad they got the funding they required to complete it. It was never worthless and many people were horrified at the thought of scrapping it.

      The Census is not and never has been a data mining exercise, and it doesn’t track everyone. Name and address information is being kept for a few years statistical matching to other collections only, to improve data richness – and the ABS is committed to keeping everyone’s information 100% confidential. There is no tracking of individuals or sharing with other organisations.

  6. Anon Coward says:

    Every study I can find has the EXACT OPPOSITE finding to this bizarre statement: “Cognitive studies show that people are more likely to give accurate information if they have put their real name to it, than if it’s anonymous.”

    It’s common sense, taught in all reputable universities, and many-times-proven that anonymity encourages more reliable and honest answers.

    What fake “Cognitive study” are you talking about? Reveal your sources, or remove that lie!

  7. Fee says:

    Well Glenn,

    Looks like you were wrong and our privacy it is at risk.
    Someone needs the sack at ABS

  8. mick of townsville says:

    G’day Glenn,

    You do realise that the Census act is an Act of Parliament and as such can be changed by Parliament, don’t you?

    Here is a scenario for you. Three years down the track the government has control of both upper and lower house and decides it wants to use census data to locate possible tax avoiders. It legislates to force the ABS to hand over all data held in order to to do this. And it makes it retrospective. In fact it is almost written into part 13 of the Act already.

    • This scenario is incredibly unlikely because it would undermine any future Census or survey collection. No-one would ever give any info again knowing this could happen.

      But even if it did, individual Census information would be useless for catching tax avoiders because it doesn’t ask for taxable income, and is collected in broad ranges.

  9. Clive says:

    “How so? I’m not aware of any privacy breach. There was a Denial of Service attack – which involves a malicious attempt to take a website offline – not to access the details within.”
    The point is Glenn with over 20 years experience working in the field I find it amazing that we ae supposed to trust these people when they have made an enourmous cockup collecting the data. As for the Ddos attack I’m yet to see the evidence. One other thing if they are truly concerned about hacking/ privacy why still use the SHA-1 hash? Their argument is, so people with older browsers can still access the site. Tell me Glenn do people with older browsers deserve less security then ones with new ones? SHA-1 has been a known security risk for years.
    We are supposed to trust these clowns. As for your playing down the value of the data to hackers ever heard of identity theft?
    By the way, assuming there was a ddos attack (the story changes continually) this can be used as a diversion while someone grabs the data. Uncommon, but possible.

  10. I’m sharing with facebook

  11. I’m sharing in my partner networks

  1. July 11, 2017

    […] The Census Expert at id.com.au makes the excellent point that, “The Census has never been anonymous at the point of collection – only the data output […]

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