Screenshot of Australian census website failing to connect

The Senate inquiry into the 2016 census debacle has condemned the Australian Bureau of Statistics’ disregard for citizens’ privacy and its lack of transparency, but declined to criticise the bureau’s project to lock all Australians into a permanent surveillance process.

The report of the Senate Standing Committees on Economics inquiry into the census, initiated by Nick Xenophon, was released yesterday, with an additional report by Xenophon and his colleague Stirling Griff that goes further on privacy protections.

The committee was scathing about the ABS’ failure to undertake consultation on its plan to radically expand the census into an ongoing personal record of every citizen through the retention of names and addresses and the linking of multiple data sources about individuals. Indeed, the committee noted that the ABS simply didn’t see why its plans to establish a permanent record on every Australian might be controversial, seeing it as “an incremental change”; privacy, in fact, was seen as a problem: “there appears to have been a belief within the ABS that destroying name and address information was preventing the organisation from meeting its objectives”. Parliament wasn’t informed of the ABS’ proposed changes, and the overall consultation process by the ABS “was manifestly inadequate”.

[The census cannot force you to give your name]

The committee was also puzzled as to why the ABS’ own, internally conducted 2015 Privacy Impact Assessment of its proposed changes was so different from an external, independent assessment conducted in 2005. “The ABS appeared unable to explain why the results of the 2005 PIA were significantly different from the 2015 PIA,” the report states, with the committee finding the ABS’ half-baked explanation “not entirely satisfactory”. The 2015 assessment shouldn’t have been conducted in-house, the committee said, and recommended all future PIAs be done externally.

However, the committee held back on the more substantive issue of the threat posed by the ABS’ switch to keep permanent individual records, saying only that it “does represent a small additional risk … The ABS needs to bring the community along with them in this endeavour by honestly explaining how the process will work, what data will be linked, and why it is important.”

Xenophon and Griff go further, however. They want a legislative amendment to make the provision of names in the census voluntary, and that the ABS be forced to seek parliamentary approval for its implementation of data linkage. Given the extraordinary lengths to which the ABS went to hide its embrace of data linkage while fulfilling the bare minimum of its transparency obligations, both of those requirements, plus the committee’s recommendations, might have saved the ABS a great deal of trouble.

[You’ve decided to boycott the census. Now what?]

As of today, however, the Prime Minister’s promise after the debacle of August 9 that “heads will roll” is unfulfilled. No one in the ABS has been held accountable either for the mishandling of privacy and security concerns in the lead-up to the census, or the poor oversight of its IBM contract.

Moreover, the ABS still has a free hand to pursue its surveillance agenda: the data of every individual who filled out a census form will be retained, linked to other government data sources relating to that individual, and permanently stored and updated to create a lifelong file on every Australian containing a wealth of personal information for future governments, malicious or corrupt bureaucrats or any hackers who can gain access to it. The only way to avoid the massive threat to privacy this poses is to continue to boycott the census in the years ahead.

Peter Fray

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