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Mar 31, 2016

Why you should boycott the census

There are serious concerns about privacy in the 2016 census -- but that's not the only reason to boycott it.


Although there’s been a recent and welcome focus on the serious privacy implications of the Australian Bureau of Statistics’ decision to retain personal identification details in this year’s census, there are other reasons Australians concerned about privacy should consider boycotting this year’s census.

Data collected in the census is undoubtedly a critical tool for policymakers in the design and administration of government services. It is also enormously useful to academics and researchers, and anyone with an interest in the changing nature of Australian demography and society.

However, it is also one of the few weapons with which Australians can fight back against a government that has launched a massive assault on privacy.

Australians’ privacy has been under repeated and usually successful attack by governments in recent years. The Turnbull-Brandis mass surveillance scheme introduced last year with the support of Labor — under which every Australian’s phone and internet records would be kept for a minimum of two years — is only the most high-profile example.

The data retention scheme was introduced with a promise that it would only be used for terrorism and the most serious criminal acts, but over 60 agencies such as the Department of Foreign Affairs, local councils, the RSPCA and taxi bodies have sought access to the data. One body, the Fair Work Building Inspectorate, applied even though it admitted its powers only extended to civil offences.

The government is also developing a national facial recognition “capability” that would enable the sharing across governments of passport photos, driver’s licences and any other facial data governments can obtain, such as CCTV cameras, to establish a database that could be used to track Australians wherever they go. The facial recognition “hub” will also be able to use photographs on social media — sites like Facebook already have highly advanced facial recognition systems that can track even people without Facebook accounts. Roadside numberplate recognition systems, which are currently only used to track heavy vehicles, are next.

The usual source of these assaults on privacy is the Commonwealth Attorney-General’s Department, which has a long record of systematically attacking the basic civil rights of Australians. In 2014, then-outgoing head of AGD, Roger Wilkins, demanded that Australians give up their expectations of privacy, telling them that the traditional belief in privacy was “clunky, old fashioned” and “unrealistic”.

But other departments have gleefully joined in the AGD war on privacy. The Department of Immigration also tried last year to hand itself the power to obtain biometric information on everyone moving through an Australian airport, but (in a rare example of national security push-back) was headed off by a quick-thinking Labor MP on the Joint Committee on Intelligence and Security.

The national e-health system that Labor long tried to implement is another major threat to privacy, with very limited benefits for patient care. Fortunately (from a point of view of privacy, not from that of taxpayers) it was bungled so badly under Labor that it remains an ambition rather than a reality. After wasting a billion dollars, the current government has re-engineered the proposal to a trial, from which patients can opt out and thereby avoiding the threat to their privacy that comes from accumulating a single, shareable resource containing your medical history.

Then there were body scanners introduced by the Department of Infrastructure in 2012 without a cost-benefit analysis, with a private US company winning the contract.

On top of all this, it turns out the government isn’t particularly keen on protecting Australians’ privacy from the private sector either. After promising to pass mandatory data-breach notification laws in 2015, the draft legislation was only unveiled for consultation at the end of the year and now is highly unlikely to be passed before the election, meaning it may well not pass by the end of 2016 either. In the meantime, firms have no obligation to tell their customers — whether consumers or other businesses — that their data has been accessed by malicious actors.

And neither Labor nor the Coalition have been particularly keen to implement the Australian Law Reform Commission’s (ALRC) multiple reports on better protecting the privacy of Australians, although Labor belatedly asked the ALRC to draw up a draft law for a statutory right against serious breaches of privacy, not long before it lost office.

While our government has wanted to accumulate more and more information about its citizens in recent years, it has been more and resistant to allowing citizens to know about it. Senior public servants, with the active encouragement of a government obsessed with secrecy, have openly attacked freedom of information laws and called for their rollback and internal government processes for enabling appeals against FOI decisions have been deliberately gummed up, while the government has used “operational matters” as an excuse to arbitrarily declare entire areas of government policy beyond even parliamentary scrutiny.

The result is information asymmetry, with governments asserting their right to know what we’re doing while preventing us from knowing what they are doing.

The census, however, is one tool that everyone has that can be used to hit back at this asymmetry. Refusing to participate in the census is not merely legitimate because of the ABS’s refusal to address the very real privacy concerns created by its decision to retain identifying information, it’s legitimate as a means to signal to the government that its war on privacy is unacceptable and comes with a cost, that it already accumulates, or forces others to accumulate, too much information about us already and that it has not earned the trust to accumulate more. Indeed, it has eroded the bond of trust between governor and governed by failing to demonstrate the need for its mass surveillance schemes — which taxpayers and consumers have to pay for — and failing to address the privacy concerns created by the accumulation of personal data by powerful multinational corporations.

Because of the government’s actions, the census is no longer a beneficent policy tool, but caught up in a broader war on privacy. It’s a war that governments started. There should be no complaint when citizens fight back with whatever tools are at their disposal.


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31 thoughts on “Why you should boycott the census

  1. Norman Hanscombe

    Genuine intellectual defenders of Civil Liberties in past eras such as Clarrie Martin and Roy Fagan would find you a fascinating subject Bernard; but Civil Liberties lost its way long ago as Faux Progressives invented one new “human right” after another.

  2. Norman Hanscombe

    They’d be surprised also by how the censorship practices of allegedly progressive left organisations have developed.

  3. Andrea

    Can someone explain why It was decided to retain personal identification details in this year’s census? They are quite irrelevant to what the main purpose of the census is. I’d be interested to know what justification was given.

  4. ADonaldson

    How would we go about refusing to participate in such a way as to send a message regarding the reason for doing so?

  5. Andrea

    Is it legal to refuse to participate? You say it is “legitimate ” and I agree, but that’s not the same thing. Can you be fined for non-participation?

  6. paddy

    Is it actually legal to refuse?
    (Asking for a friend called Brenda.)

  7. Hyperstimulated

    @Andrea you can be fined see http://www.austlii.edu.au/au/legis/cth/consol_act/casa1905241/s14.html (its not up to date I think but comlaw is a pain to link from)

  8. Stuart Coyle

    I take it that Brenda is a civil disobedience penguin.

  9. Hyperstimulated

    the fine is one penalty unit or $180 as it is currently

  10. bevnjen

    Britain has been using name identified data for much longer than a century. It has been a minefield of information for historians and genealogists. The data are kept confidential for 100 years – the 1911 UK census release was so eagerly awaited by people from all around the world that the archives website crashed repeatedly.

  11. paddy

    She is indeed a CD penguin SC.
    So if, as Hyper suggests it’s a $180 fine for all us penguins to protest, perhaps Crikey would like to give us a free annual subscription to man (or penguin) the barricades?
    (Just leaving it out there as a thought bubble.)

  12. Ross Floate

    It’s one penalty unit *PER DAY* that the census remains incomplete. Leave it a month and you’ll be legally liable for a hefty fine (though this has up until now been rarely if ever pursued.


  13. mikeb

    It all seems a bit petty to me. I’ll happily fill in the census forms.

  14. Norman Hanscombe

    You’re spot on, mikeb, but when the Faux Progressives have the bit between their teeth they gallop furiously into the most absurd ‘battles’.

  15. Dog's Breakfast

    Fine, give over your private and personal information if you see no problem with that, but if I complete it at all, it will be deliberately dim, incorrect, and provide as little information as possible.

    You would have to be a right wing nut job not to see a problem with the privacy and government access to it.

    Norman, you are a troll, and a fairly dim one at that. Faux progressive! Rich abuse coming from a faux intellectual.

    Bernard, just how civilly disobedient can a person be without incurring the wrath of the ABS? More information needed.

  16. RachelP

    I find this article absolutely chilling and am frustrated that most others do not view such encroaches into our privacy as a serious threat.

    Why go to the trouble of collecting all that data when the previous anonymous system apparently worked well enough? They can’t even use the old ‘for our safety and security’ argument with this one.

    I’ve not yet been old enough to fill out a census but isn’t it possible to just answer all the information falsely so you don’t get the fine?

  17. Graham R

    I agree, Mr Keane. Now I would like to see an article by yourself explaining how citizens can proceed with this civil disobedience without incurring a $180.00 per day fine. There must be ways.

  18. Hyperstimulated

    @ Dog’s Breakfast, that’s a $1,800 fine please… that said its cheaper than not filling it out indefinitely

  19. J S

    Is it legal to provide incorrect or no information? No. Do they usually fine people? Increasingly yes, as the ABS loses it’s way, but they still prefer not to. Lots of legwork on their part before it gets to that point. How would this change if thousands of people refused to complete it? Who knows.

    I don’t think you’re included if you’re out of the country. Probably not included if you’re not at an address either. So if everyone agrees you’re not at a place, or if you really are somewhere without a street number (camping), you might not / should not be included.


  20. Graham R

    I believe you have to be at home on the night in order to fill out the Census. Perhaps those intent on civil disobedience can arrange a pool of people who stay at each others houses that night, and are thus not at home?

    Governments cannot govern without the will of the people, and that will can be withdrawn.

  21. Norman Hanscombe

    Graham R, There are forms for those staying in places other than their homes, or who have no homes or are traveling where there’s nowhere to stay, etc.
    If someone is particularly neurotic and/or paranoid and/or stupid they can ‘escape’ and not be recorded; but it’s unlikely you fit any of those categories, so why worry about the Census?

  22. AR

    Civil disobedience only works (on rare occasions)when it is a truly mass movement.
    As some here (egmikeB@14) indicate, few care or understand that the massive encroachments on our rights that have occurred will increase geometrically (it’s in the nature of the ravening Beast) until one day they’ll wake up and say “wha’appened?” only to be told STFU.
    Brekky has the simplest solution – supply utterly inaccurate but unverifiable nonsense – Jedi Knights for religion being a prime example.
    It’s a shame because as BK states, there is a beneficial purpose behind a Census but they’ve the bridge before it was crossed.

  23. AR

    … as well as “they’ve burnt the bridge before it was crossed.

  24. Marcus Bissenbach

    Another good reason to vote independent.

  25. Norman Hanscombe

    That’s true of course, Marcus Bissenbach, IF one has the sort of absurdly naive misunderstanding of the outside world common frequently displayed by the Crikey Commissariat and it’s devoted camp followers.

  26. JMNO

    I am with bevnjen. As one who has found English and Scottish census data from the nineteenth century to be a fascinating source of family history information, and on a broader scale, a way of tracing British social history, I think keeping Census forms is a good idea PROVIDED it follows the same rules as in the UK: ie personal information is not released for 100 years.

    Do we know when and by whom the Australian Census forms will be able to be accessed?

  27. J S

    The last two? census’ have had an OPTION to allow your personal data (the entire form actually) to be put in storage for 100 years and then released. Apparently this was well-received and somehow the ABS used this as some sort of bizarre justification to cease anonymising the census. The ‘no-one sees it for 100 years’ bit was just tossed aside.

    A cynical person might suggest the entire exercise was about getting rid of that 100 year limit and the ABS framed the whole thing about genealogy with their talk of long-term latitudinal blah blah.

    Anyway, once the data is in their hands they can access it whenever they want. The UK didn’t respect it’s own 100 year limit (‘ehh close enough, lets read this shit now’). And new laws can be passed that invalidate the old ones. For now I *think* the census data can only be legally used by the ABS, internally. Until they pass a new law that lets everyone else have it.

    Also keep in mind things can change rapidly. Americans with Japanese names sure didn’t expect to be locked up in camps for no good reason. If I had a middle-eastern name or called Islam my religion I don’t think I’d be filling in the census accurately. Everything is preposterous until it’s not.

    By the way, wouldn’t a system for hiding a users comments here be nice? Some people put so much effort into being purposefully unpleasant and I have no desire to come across them.

  28. Angela

    Bernard, thanks for the article. You are one of the few journalists that is covering this important issue. I would like to see an article with a checklist of exactly who collects our information/photos/GPS data and who they pass it on to. Charlie Pickering’s Weekly show last week touched on this and it shocked me that even information from a Fitbit is collected by a data company and can be provided (at a price) to organisations such as NAB, Health Insurance companies and potential employers.
    I’m starting to get a bit worried and angry about the extent of data collection.

  29. JMNO

    I intend to fill out the census and cross my fingers on the privacy issue. In the past I have used census data for important and very useful planning purposes, and there is no alternative source for this kind of data.

  30. SteveP

    More important to me to register another “no religion” person than to protest the collection of basic demographic information, or to hijack the census over unrelated privacy concerns.

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