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.
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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.