On census data

Chair, Academic Board of the University of Western Australia Associate Professor Cara MacNish writes: Re. “Don’t freak out about census data” (yesterday). Of all the charges levelled at those who propose various conscientious objections to the new census, as a scientist and academic involved in governance, the implication that one would be disrupting research hits the hardest. This argument has been put forward by a number of high profile researchers in recent days, particularly those involved in population health and epidemiology. Indeed, the term “public benefit” appears no less than six times in Professors Stanley, Nolan and Mathews response to “What you risk when you boycott the census” in yesterday’s Crikey.

It is clear that the more data you store, and the more tightly it is linked to individuals and can therefore be cross-referenced to other sources, the more effective research (and public benefit) can be achieved. For example, if we tracked all vehicles at all times, the data could be used to optimise traffic programming and road use. If we took this a step further and tracked all people at all times, we could improve public transport as well. And so on, ad absurdum.

This argument fails, however, to balance potential benefits with issues of informed consent and privacy that are the cornerstones of modern research. One need look no further than the Australian Government’s own National Health and Medical Research Council’s (NHMRC) National Statement on Ethical Conduct in Human Research, which links the value of respect for human beings directly with the scope to make their own decisions. The ‘requirement for consent’, according to these guidelines, has three conditions: consent should be a voluntary choice, and it should be based on sufficient information and adequate understanding of both the proposed research and the implications of participation.

The new census clearly fails on the first count: the census provides no discretion to consent to data usage and the ABS intends to fine those who do not fully participate. On the second count, the public debate suggests that there is little understanding of the scope to which the “richer and dynamic statistical picture” might be put. Certainly it is not spelled out in the Census and Statistics Act 1905 which mandates participation. Further, given the longitudinal tracking of information that will form the dynamical picture, along with data security questions, it is difficult, if not impossible, to predict the future implications of participation with any certainty.

It is disappointing that the ABS has missed the opportunity to explore options for a new, more effective census, that would increase public confidence by balancing public benefit with respect for individual choice.

Ian Franklin writes: The majority of the population have been issued a 12 digit census log in. Perhaps my conspiracy tendencies are showing, but doesn’t this mean they already have a list matching these login and the addresses they were sent to? ‘Data match’ that (which they have already said they will do) with other government and non-government data (e.g. social security, tax file numbers, electoral roles, local council records etc.) they already have us ‘identified’. Boycotting the form is the only way to go … but then they know which addresses didn’t comply by not using the login. Big Brother and Catch-22 nicely rolled into one entity: the ABS.


Peter Fray

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Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey