Jul 14, 2016

The census cannot force you to give your name

Compelling Australians to give their names to the census taker is unconstitutional, writes Bill McLennan, Australian Statistician 1995-2000.

Census collectors do their rounds
Census collectors do their rounds

The Acting Australian Information Commissioner recently said “Privacy is not secrecy. It is about giving individuals control over how their personal information is handled; creating customer confidence and trust. As such, good privacy practices and great innovation directly support each other.


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13 thoughts on “The census cannot force you to give your name

  1. Moita Natoon

    These days people have lots of experience generating spurious data for online signups.

  2. Andrew Roff

    While I don’t agree with the ABS’ approach to information collection and use in the upcoming census, I think it would be fairly simple for the ABS to overcome the objections raised in the article. With regard to the requirement that the ABS “compile and analyse the statistical information collected under this Act and … publish and disseminate the results of any such compilation and analysis”, all the ABS would need to do would be, for example, to compile and publish an analysis of how may people in Australia have the first name “John”. That’s not a particularly useful piece of analysis, perhaps, but it would satisfy the requirement to analyse and publish.

  3. zut alors

    Excellent information from an expert. Thanks.

  4. Bob Joyce

    Don’t you love the smell of paranoia in the middle of Winter?

    1. AR

      Just being paranoid doesn’t mean that there is no danger.

  5. Prefix

    I’m not sure if the legal argument stands up. I’d have imagined it would be possible to analyse name data. As one example, the ABS could conduct an analysis of the degree to which census name/address data matches name/address data in other government databases. While there’s nothing I can see in the Act that requires the analysis to be useful, that kind of data could be used to examine the accuracy of other databases, or the probability that people have lied in either the census or the other database. A more facile example (but equally valid for the purposes of the legislation) would be producing an analysis of the number of individuals living in each local government who has the letter ‘Q’ in their name. There’s nothing in section 12 that says the analysis needs to be useful.

    1. Hello Kitty

      It doesn’t need to be useful but it does need to be made available. According to http://help.census.abs.gov.au/privacy we know that “individuals names will … be substituted with a linkage key, a computer generated random set of numbers and letters, completely anonymising the personal information”.
      This in effect means there is no way for anyone to perform *any* statistical analysis on people’s names. And since statistical analysis is impossible it is therefore illegal for the ABS to compel people to provide names for statistical purposes.

  6. Hugh (Charlie) McColl

    Regardless of the absolute legal position it is a terrible shame that the government, already reluctant if not downright resistant to holding a census, is now prepared to ruin the whole thing by threatening people about the potential misuse (if not actual intimidation) which it might subject participants to. Imagine asking Moslems (for example) to identify themselves with name and address and then insinuate that you might, if you so desire, make information from the Census available to certain government departments or political parties. Totally out of the question of course (ha fucking ha) but look, the electoral roll is now updated without the knowledge of voters so other outcomes are surely just around the corner. Unless the government backs off and honestly states that it will not spread raw data around under any circumstances (and a minister takes personal responsibility for this promise), the Census is in danger of becoming as useless as a plebiscite. What a waste.

  7. AR

    If the claim is that data will not be cross referenced then the option of loading the form with utterly spurious data is a very simple way to disprove this.
    Pity about the damage to the overall benefit of accurate data but this is no joke.

  8. Srs21

    Well if they give our ballot papers to a security firm owned by the Chinese state and our medical records to Telstra what’s to say they won’t give our census papers to some other foreign owned company for safe keeping?

  9. Rod Hagen

    Remember how they were talking about abandoning the census altogether a couple of years back?
    Perhaps the motivation behind this move is to make it a useless waste of time and money so they can follow their old plans and give it the boot. It is certainly hard to see how the data this time around, in an environment almost designed to garner misinformation, will be truly comparable with previous Australian Censuses.

  10. F J

    Ok, so, if the name doesn’t need to be provided on the form, there is no legal entity they can
    hold responsible – unless they require a name to sign the form (?)
    Also, I read that they will send out initial letters addressed “to the resident at xyz”. So what if I “return to sender” this letter in the first place as it is not addressed to a name, put up no trespass signs around the entrances and don’t get into any discussions with the collectors, just tell them they’re trespassing if they knock. Who will they prosecute if they cannot get hold of my name, they cannot even address a letter to me in that case?
    Of course, the other option is to provide BS on the form AND no name

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