Unchastened by the census debacle and unbowed by the government’s use of personal information to pursue its critics, the Australian Bureau of Statistics is again demanding Australians hand over their most private information under the threat of prosecution.

Earlier this month, Andrew Henderson of the ABS wrote to 35,000 households demanding that they participate in “an Important Household Survey” (yes, with the capitalisation) and register online for the process. “You are obliged to provide the information being requested,” the chosen recipients were told. Anyone who refused to be registered would be visited by the ABS and required to comply under the Census and Statistics Act 1905. Currently, anyone refusing to co-operate with the ABS can be fined $180 (plus court costs).

How the ABS chooses its targets isn’t clear: in the 1980s it infamously targeted journalist Shirley Stott-Despoja and lost the subsequent court case — and then had Parliament change the law to remove the possibility of losing again.

[Why you should boycott the census]

The survey comes in the wake of both the 2016 census debacle and the subsequent inquiry, which revealed that the ABS had a poor understanding of and lacked capacity to manage its IT contracts. It also comes after revelations the Department of Human Services, which promises “we are bound by strict confidentiality and secrecy provisions in social security, families, health, child support and disability services law” and that it will not use personal information “for any purpose other than why it was collected”, handed private information to journalists in order to smear Centrelink clients for publicly criticising it. The government also plans similar laws to enable the Department of Veterans’ Affairs to do the same.

Information obtained from the survey will be added to census data, other survey data and other information on individuals and addresses held by other government agencies to create a joined-up, lifelong file of personal information on every citizen — protected, the ABS says, by an encrypted identity key.

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

The Centrelink attacks on its critics demonstrate how government will always find ways to justify exploiting personal information despite assurances it will be kept confidential — the Department of Human Services insisted its was right to release private details about writer Andie Fox to journalist Paul Malone, in order to address the “concerns” of “other individuals … so that people knew it was important to file their tax returns and tell us about changes in their circumstances”.

Citizens concerned to protect their privacy and prevent future abuse of their information by the government are best advised to take whatever steps they can to avoid ABS surveys, since the ABS can offer no guarantees that the information will not be stolen or misused by the government. If they must co-operate, victims are advised to film the entire interview with the ABS representative to create their own record of what information has been provided — you are perfectly entitled to film in your own home, and ABS employees have no basis for refusing to be filmed.

Peter Fray

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