On 9 August 2016 Australians attempted to sit down in front of the computer to fill out the census.
Before the event, there was a lot of controversy, as it’s the first time that the census will be conducted online. It’s also the first time in the census’ century-long history that Australian citizens will have their names and addresses kept for up to four years, or risk a cumulative fine up to $1800 if they refuse.
Many people were concerned about the security and privacy implications of giving away such personal information. Among those was Senator Nick Xenaphon, who refused to comply. He stated:
‘The ABS has failed to make a compelling case why names must be provided, and stored for four years, and unlike any other census in this nation’s history since that first census on the 2nd of April 1911, all names will be turned into a code that ultimately can be used to identify you.’
And he is not alone. Politicians including Senators Scott Ludlam, Sarah Hanson-Young and Jackie Lambie have all expressed misgivings about providing this information.
Yet this controversy was overshadowed when millions of Australians went to do their civic duty only to have found that the site had crashed. Whether it was a purported hacking, or whether the ABS site simply couldn’t handle the load, it raised broader questions: What is the value of the census and what privacy rights should we have?
A snapshot of a nation
Even though this modern incarnation comes with a hashtag, mistrust of the census isn’t a new phenomenon. In fact, Australians have a history of being distrustful of the census. In the 1920’s and 1930’s during the depression, census collectors were run out of people’s homes. Yet the census is one of the most valuable ways that we have to get an idea of our makeup, and how our money should be spent. And having the most accurate information is the best way to ensure this.
The reason that the ABS is keeping people’s address is three-fold. In an interview with the Huffington Post, Duncan Young, Census 2016 Program Manager told the Huffington Post:
- Asking for names ensures that people will fill out the census more accurately
- The census always misses people or counts some people twice, so they do a quality study where they go back to fifty thousand homes, names can help correct that census data
- You can create ‘linkage keys’ with names which can be used to link with other data to get a clearer picture of where Australia is at in 2016
Having names and addresses on the census can also allow for a match through to the death registry. MP Andrew Leigh argues that this is significant because it allowed us in the previous census to get a much better sense of the Indigenous/non-Indigenous life expectancy gap, as well as assess health rates between immigrant populations.
This is important, because the census data allows governments and non-government organisations alike to allocate funding to groups that have traditionally been overlooked. The census can expose problems in areas like healthcare, regional areas, homelessness and indigenous groups and can provide the basis for significant policy shifts.
Privacy and security
However, as important as it is to have a tool that allows for fact-based policy making, it needs to be coupled with considerations surrounding the individual’s right to privacy and a guarantee of the security of that information. There have been many arguments that we all give social media much more personal information. As The Conversation suggests:
‘There are far easier ways to find out information about someone than using the census. This fact is missing from the debate: the world has changed since the ABS last discussed retaining names and addresses more than a decade ago. There was no Facebook or Twitter. We didn’t all have loyalty cards in our wallets with names and addresses attached, as well as purchasing behaviour.’
Yet the major difference between the census data and social media data, is that we get to choose what we submit on social media. If we have privacy concerns, then we don’t need to create an account, or we can create a false account. However, with this census, the choice about what we submit is not up for discussion and coupled with the site’s crash has understandably made people feel nervous.
At this stage, it’s still not clear what happened, but as the situation unfolds, it will be fascinating to see what the wash up is. In the meantime we’d love to hear your views on the 2016 Census. Where do you think the line between valuable information and the individual’s right to privacy should be drawn? Leave your comments below - we’d love to hear from you.
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