Screenshot of Australian census website failing to connect

With what was, in retrospect, a remorseless inevitability, the submission of the Australian Bureau of Statistics to the Senate economics committee inquiry into why the 2016 census was such an unmitigated stuff-up was … stuffed up. After being published online by the committee secretariat last week, it was hastily taken down because ABS had included some commercially confidential information about its contract with IBM in its submission.

IBM, you see, doesn’t fare well in ABS’ explanation of the census night debacle. “The online Census system was hosted by IBM under contract to the ABS and the DDoS attack should not have been able to disrupt the system. Despite extensive planning and preparation by the ABS for the 2016 Census this risk was not adequately addressed by IBM,” the ABS said in the submission. It goes on to describe in detail the assurances IBM provided the ABS about its ability to handle a denial-of-service attack.

[Panicked ABS top dogs declare census return ‘crisis’]

Not that IBM is Robinson Crusoe when it comes to blame. There are a lot of people to blame apparently. Indeed, the document is less a submission than the screed of one betrayed and eager for revenge against a pack of tormentors. The politicians cop it for cutting the ABS’ budget. Marketing firm Dentsu Mitchell and Twitter cop it for failing to shut down the ABS’ Twitter account, which continued urging people to complete the census long after the system had been taken offline. Australia Post delivered the ABS’ mail too quickly(!). Too many people rang up the ABS call centres. Too many people emailed the ABS.

Reading the submission, you’re left with the impression the ABS had a perfectly fine census until those annoying 24 million Australians got involved.

And the media … What didn’t the media do wrong? There was “unexpected and unprompted media and social media focus on potential of Census fines creating a degree of public fear.” The ABS’ decision to transform the census into a permanent longitudinal study of every person in the country prompted “commentary, often uninformed”. The views of Bill McLennan, former head of the ABS “appear to have been implicitly accepted by the mainstream media without being seriously tested or substantiated” (yes, thinking a former head of the ABS might have an informed perspective on the census is a classic journalistic error). And journalists didn’t ask the ABS for its side of the story on privacy. There was even a media conspiracy against the ABS:

“The ABS is aware of a number of instances where the community benefit of what the ABS was proposing to deliver from the 2016 Census was not able to get a reasonable representation in the media, through editing of material and difficulties some expert researchers had in having their views published.”

Strangely, despite the ABS repeatedly insisting that the media was horrible to it, it also insists it had no effect: “evidence from the 2016 Census … shows that fears reported in the media do not reflect the views or behaviours of the general public.”

As the outlet that first alerted readers to the ABS’ decision to retain names and addresses despite an independent report warning against it, and the first to urge a boycott of the census because of the privacy implications of its decision, and which ran Bill McLennan’s excellent analysis of the legal issues around the retention of names and addresses, Crikey can’t help but feel slightly targeted here.

To which we can’t help but respond — it’s not us, it’s you.

It’s not merely the case that, in blaming everyone but itself for the census debacle, the ABS is reflecting classic bureaucratic thinking. (Arse-covering and blame-shifting is the reflexive response of bureaucrats the world over — whether they’re in government or the private sector.) That the ABS has been under siege for months doubtless simply added to the urge to see everyone else as the enemy at the gates. It’s understandable that the agency has been reduced to the institutional equivalent of a shivering paranoiac, seeing enemies everywhere.

But what the ABS has missed — and what this writer was getting at when he first called for a census boycott — is that its working assumptions about privacy are deeply flawed. The ABS is operating from a 20th century, analog mindset on privacy: that our government has only a limited set of tools to collect, and only a limited interest in using, information about its citizens. Digitisation and the internet mean most of us now emit a constant mist of zeros and ones that describe where we are, who we are with, how we are feeling and what we are doing — often information we don’t even know about ourselves. Accessing, assembling and exploiting this information has become of almost obsessive interest not merely to corporations anxious to sell us something — or just sell us full stop — but to governments as well.

[Census demands compulsory follow-up interview, bungles that badly as well]

Accordingly, the ABS’ analog mentality no longer holds. It’s like security agencies arguing data retention laws are simply a digital version of a power they’ve always had to get analog phone call data. As we tirelessly explained during the data retention debate, in fact it’s a dramatic expansion of power because it’s no longer just call data, it’s life data from the small surveillance devices that we use to make phone calls with.

The ABS’ decision to retain census names and addresses for the purposes of assembling a permanent, longitudinal profile of each citizen was the data retention moment of statistics — an attempt to justify a radical expansion in the collection of data about Australians on the basis that it was merely a continuation of the traditional census (about which, the ABS has been careful to note, there have always been privacy debates).

The ABS sees itself as the innocent victim of an evil media. But there’s no victimhood about the ABS. It has draconian powers — including entry into buildings without a warrant. It has an army of census collectors and hundreds of millions of dollars to deploy. It wants us to believe that statistics collection is a benign, apolitical activity. But statistics collection has always been — right from when the emerging states of the early modern era began trying to count their subjects for the purposes of determining their military power — innately political in both collection and usage. The ABS believes that, on privacy, its track record should mean it gets the benefit of the doubt. But the lesson of recent years on surveillance, security and privacy is that no one should be given the benefit of the doubt — and certainly not governments and bureaucrats.