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Issue #1744      August 17, 2016

Weapon of mass surveillance

The 2016 Census is a massive and potentially dangerous invasion of privacy, the likes of which has never been witnessed before in Australia. Despite all the talk about deletion of names and addresses after four years, the intent is to keep such information for linkage to other data collections. Big Brother or Corporate Dictatorship is writ large over the 2016 Census.

The extent to which the 2016 Census becomes an unreliable collection of personal data remains to be seen. But there is no doubt about the lack of trust in and frustration with the Australian Bureau of Statistics’ (ABS) conduct of the Census.

It is looking more like a weapon of mass surveillance than a collection of aggregate data. It also adds to the data being compiled by the government’s meta data retention laws, by various internet providers and intelligence agencies.

It was the first online Census and turned into farce as the ABS website went down on census night (August 9) when millions of Australians attempted to fill out the online form. The debacle only added to the government’s woes over the already highly controversial census.

The simplest and most obvious explanation is the system could not handle the peak volumes of traffic – the last thing the ABS or government were willing to admit.

The census has historically played an important role in providing aggregate statistical information that can be used in making decisions such as for the provision of services or infrastructure and to researchers.

Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull claims that the ABS “Always protects people’s privacy” and that the security of personal details is “absolute and that is protected by law and practice.”

No matter what guarantees Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull and his Ministers make about the security of the information, they are meaningless. In this digital age, there are no such guarantees.

“Census is meant to collect aggregated data for planning purposes. It is a breach of trust to turn it into a giant database with highly personal information linked to our names and addresses,” the Australian Privacy Foundation (APF) pointed out.

A key

The ABS says, “Names and addresses will be used by the ABS to generate anonymous keys that can be used to combine existing data sets to create richer and more valuable statistics for Australia.”

These keys are known as SLK ID (statistical linkage key) numbers. They form the basis of a national ID system in which the compulsory provision of names and addresses in the 2016 Census plays an important role.

“The combination of Census data and health data can help improve Australia’s understanding and support of people who require mental health services and assist with the design of better programs of support and prevention,” the ABS says.

That begs the question: What other data sets? MyHealth medical records, Pharmaceutical Benefit Scheme records, mental health, social security, NewStart, tax, workers’ compensation? MyHealth has now been changed to an “opt out” scheme without the knowledge of many people.

Will individuals be grouped on the basis of religion or politics or country of birth? What would an ultra right-wing government do with this information?

Australians will be given no say in how this information will be used. The ABS says the provision of names and addresses is compulsory and is threatening people who do not comply with fines of $180 a day until their Census is correctly returned.

Former Australian Statistician Bill McClelland raises the question of the demands being made breaching the Privacy Act. “… the composition of a census, as defined in legislation, does not include matching the census data with administrative data, after the census has been taken,” McClelland said.

“Honey pot”

In this digital age, no one can guarantee the security of electronically stored data.

Hackers will see it as a tempting “honey pot” of rich personal information which could be worth millions of dollars if sold on to corporations. It would also be attractive to employers, insurance companies and other parasites.

“The 2016 approach is an incremental change to the widely publicised and consulted … Census Data Enhancement program undertaken with the 2006 and 2011 Census,” the ABS said. Again, another question: What is the next “incremental” change”?

The retention of names and addresses and plans to link them with other records is designed to provide the government and other agencies and organisations with a centralised collection of personal details of every resident.

No guarantee of security

The Australian Bureau of Statistics and the Government keep claiming that the information will be secure because it is protected by law. This is rubbish. Laws can be changed. Laws can be broken. Intelligence agencies are unaccountable and from time to time are exposed for their illegal operations. We might never know how they are using it.

The government called in the Signals Directorate to identify the source of the problems on Census day. We have already been told that they may not be able to tell the public its findings for security reasons!

McLennan has spoken out strongly against the linkage of names and addresses to other data and their retention.

Leaks of information can arise through hacking, from internal sources or just straight-out negligence. The Department of Immigration’s bungle saw 9,250 asylum seekers’ details published online.

There is only one way to prevent data breaches occurring and that is not to hold the information in the first place.

Census outsourced

Hardly reassuring when laws can be changed and significant parts of the operation of the online collection of personal information has been outsourced to Softlayer, a subsidiary of the private US corporation IBM. The information passes through Softlayer before the ABS receives it.

The Australian Privacy Foundation raises a number of important questions about this outsourcing:

  • What legal arrangements have been entered into between the ABS and IBM/Softlayer to ensure the security of data?
  • Will the Census-related data be sent outside Australia or processed offshore?
  • What other data IBM might be collecting on Australians, such as their Internet Protocol (IP) addresses?
  • As IBM/Softlayer is subject to US law, can any data obtained or processed or stored by them be lawfully accessed, such as under the Patriot Act, by US government agencies such as the National Security Agency?

National ID system

The move to establish a national identification system, attaching a unique number to each resident was defeated by the Senate and public opposition in 1987. The Hawke Labor government’s Australia Card was dropped and the tax file number scheme to enable cross-referencing benefits received and tax paid by individuals.

The next attempt was by the Howard government in 2006. Howard tried to sell the card by emphasising its “non-compulsory” nature. It would replace 19 other cards being used by people to access Medicare, pensions, unemployment benefits, family tax benefits, concessions for medicines and so on.

It would initially include a digital photograph, a unique number, signature, date of birth and address on its embedded computer chip. People could choose to have their health and emergency contact numbers on it for the use of ambulance staff.

It was claimed that such a card was needed following the 2005 London bombings, although the proposed uses hardly seemed relevant to catching terrorists.

The 2016 Census has all the makings of a national ID system with a unique number (SLK ID number – statistical linkage key) allocated to each resident and centralisation of personal data.

Who can you believe?

McCormack was quick to claim that “No census data was compromised and no data was lost.” This was before any investigation took place! And, we have been advised that when the Army’s Signals Directorate has finished its “thorough and transparent” investigation we are unlikely to be told its findings for security reasons!

The most likely scenario according to most analysts with a technical background, unlike many of the government ministers, is simple overload which crashed the system.

Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull said the site was taken down “out of an abundance of caution”.

Australian Bureau of Statistics head David Kalisch blamed overseas cyber “attacks”.

The debate around the cause of the crash and the inability of people to fill out the online form or get through on the telephone to request a paper form has diverted attention from the purpose of the Census.

Attorney General George Brandis said it was not a cyber “attack”, just numerous attempts of denial-of-service by foreign sources. These attempts of denial of service simulate a lot of users trying to access the site at the same time resulting in a crash.

And all these claims before the investigation into the causes had been carried out!

The Australian Privacy Foundation has called on the government to:

  • Scrap the current census
  • Hold a Senate Committee investigation into the ABS’s failures and in regard to privacy and personal information security
  • Abandon the requirement for names, including the names of people’s employers
  • Amend the Census and Statistics Act the so that there can be no use of census data for data linking
  • Abandon the threat of fines for non-completion
  • Conduct an open, independent Information technology risk and privacy impact assessment which would include the vulnerabilities of the new online collection model and the new SLK ID number.

As former Deputy Privacy Commissioner and a privacy consultant for the past 12 years, Anna Johnson says, “The Census should be a national snapshot, not a tool for detailed data-linking on every individual.”

Next article – Just how corrupt is the UK?

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