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Australians vent census privacy concerns

The Australian census has triggered a privacy debate after it emerged that the citizen data it collects will be held for years

Australians will fill in their national census forms today, Tuesday 9 August, amid a privacy furore caused by the census taker, the Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS), retaining name and address information for years.

The ABS has been upbraided by a parade of privacy and civil liberties advocates, as well as concerned politicians pouring scorn on changes to the 2016 census that will see the retention of Australians’ names and addresses for four years.

The ABS has argued that the changes will enable it to build a clearer statistical picture of the country. Australians can choose this year between filling out their census online using a 12-digit identification number or calling a phone hotline to get a paper form.

Veteran Australian privacy advocate Roger Clarke warned on his website that data from the census and other ABS surveys would be linked and that “additional data will be expropriated from other sources and added to each person’s record”.

He also said that individual data about people and households would be made available to researchers, and while information would be de-identified, the data would be rich enough to permit re-identification.

‘Massive extension’

Clarke said the linking of identity to census data had been “imposed” on 5% of the population in 2006 and 2011, and that applying the process to everybody was a “massive extension”.

“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,” wrote Clarke.

Digital civil liberties advocate Electronic Frontiers Australia said that respondents to the census should be able to opt in to having personally identifiable data retained, as had been the case with previous censuses.

The EFA said it worried that many Australians would avoid participating in the census or provide misleading information because of privacy concerns.

Senator Scott Ludlam, who is the Greens party spokesman on broadband, communications and the digital economy, called for the ABS to rule out fines for those who did not want to put their name or address on the census form and for the census itself to be delayed while the privacy issues were sorted out.

“The ABS response to privacy concerns has been wholly inadequate, and if they refuse to push census day back, they need to guarantee they will not fine people who choose to protect their own privacy,” said Ludlam in a statement.

No census breach

The ABS is by no mean a digital fortress, having made 14 data breach notifications in three years about the personal information it holds, the Australian edition of The Guardian reported.

However, the ABS did make the breach notifications voluntarily and none of the breaches was related to the handling of census details.

ABS chief statistician David Kalisch told the Australian Broadcasting Commission that the organisation had never had a privacy breach with census information.

“We’ve never had a privacy breach with census information and we do secure the information somewhat differently… These days we can keep names separate from address and separate from other census content, in three separate computer systems and never brought together,” he told the ABC.

Defying the census

Meanwhile, independent senator Nick Xenophon and Greens senator Sarah Hanson-Young have said they will risk prosecution and withhold their names from their census forms.

Xenophon is prepared to be fined $180 a day for not complying. “I do not take this step lightly,” he told reporters.

Hanson-Young told Sky News she would not put her name or her daughter’s on the census form, also risking prosecution.

The raft of criticisms forced the prime minister, Malcolm Turnbull, to defend the ABS and the census. “The security of their personal details is absolute and that is protected by law and by practice,” he told reporters.

Read more on Privacy and data protection

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