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Issue #1743      August 10, 2016


Census 2016 – danger in the era of “big data”

Completing the census form used to be a straightforward civic duty like dumping fruit at a state border or pulling to the side of the road to let an ambulance past. The data collected would help planners locate schools and hospitals and a host of other services. Of course, the political decision to build these where there is greatest need is part of the class struggle but the collection of reliable data by the Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS) had the support of the overwhelming majority of Australians.

This year’s census is dramatically different. For the first time, residents’ names and addresses will be included among the questions asked. The once anonymous “snapshot” of Australia on census night will become a treasure trove of information on individual Australians. Experts are concerned about the dangers involved in such a massive haul of personal data and many in the community are considering how to protect themselves.

The ABS says it wants a “richer and dynamic statistical picture” of the population. It sought permission to gather names and addresses in 2006 and 2011 but was knocked back. The circumstances prompting the rejection haven’t changed in the meantime. What has changed is the pressure for the collection of “big data” and “open data”; the idea that in the age of the Internet, everything is known about everybody, anyway, and that it is pointless to try and protect one’s privacy.

The ABS says that the names and addresses will be stored in a separate database and that those details will be destroyed in 2020. It claims personal data will not be made available to third parties, including the minister. The bureau has gone to great, if belated, lengths to reassure the public that their privacy is safe, according to ABS spokespersons.

Unfortunately, this is also the age of the hacker. The ABS itself has had 14 data breaches since 2013. The Sony Corporation, the US Department of State and the director of the CIA have all been breached. The Bureau has struggled to explain how “de-identified” data could be prevented from being “re-identified” by current or future technology. And there is the chance that a government might legislate to obtain the personal records for its other agencies in future in response to a terror attack or similar emergency.

The Australian Privacy Foundation says Australians would be “alarmed by this sneaky change to the way their personal information will now be stored.” Bill McLennan, former head of the ABS is scathing of the move. WA Greens Senator Scott Ludlam spoke for many Australians about the problem at the centre of the controversy surrounding Census 2016 – trust.

“The federal government took us to a double-dissolution election under the pretext of a bill that strips fundamental human rights from building and construction workers,” the Senator said. “We have a resurgent far-right busily mainstreaming demands for an end to Muslim immigration. This is not an age in which governments, present or future, can be trusted either with the powers that they have or the willingness to change the laws governing how census data could be accessed or used in the future.” Senator Ludlum has called for a two-week delay for the conducting of the census. Another widely supported demand is for the stiff fines for refusing to provide information be waved in the case of the name and address questions.

Readers of the Guardian will need to make their own judgement based on their own circumstances about suggestions coming from concerned groups about using an alias, writing that they are unwilling to provide the requested information or to boycott the census in protest. A straight refusal to submit a form will be met with a $1,800 fine. Delaying the return of a completed form will be met with a fine of $180 per request from the ABS to submit it.

Radical political change is required, not just a change to the census form or the penalties. A government that is busy cementing a corporate dictatorship in place cannot be trusted to safeguard people’s privacy. The need for a government of a new type that will not only protect people’s privacy but start eliminating the source of threats to their security and wellbeing of the people is plain. Building unity in action to achieve it will be hard but the Communist Party of Australia is committed to that cause.

Next article – Pakistan agrees to repatriate refugee body

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