Census and Sensibility – privacy concerns

Cartoon of Brenda the Civil Disobedience penguin saying: Of course the ABS is banging on about how your data will be super secure and no one will be allowed to look at it ever, they even have one of those new fangled firewalls! To which I say... Have you heard of the internet?

It’s a bit of a concern when one of the earliest vocal advocates for privacy around the Census is “Australia’s most beloved cartoonist” First Dog on the Moon.

Whilst we have a lot of love for Brenda the civil disobedience penguin, it has been eerily quiet over the last couple of months regarding the Census with just a few people raising concerns and describing it as “without doubt, the most significant invasion of privacy ever perpetrated on Australians by the ABS,” says ex ABS statistician Bill McLennan. EDIT 5/8: and another quality effort by First Dog about the “Census Cage fight” here.

Thankfully, in the last week or two there has been some belated activity online, with the #CensusFail hashtag generating a lot of discussion and debate, but still not much in the way of an organised campaign of resistance or high profile activity to highlight the gross privacy breaches. There is an excellent video from the fab Juice news crew though. (Edit: and good index of some of the news articles here.)

Given the scope and possible gravity of the changes it is great that there is at least some public commentary popping up in recent days. But with great chat, comes great confusion… so we have attempted to round up some information for you all.

Heck, even the government seems a bit confused about who is the Minister in charge, only recently confirming Michael McCormack as responsible. Don’t worry guys! He loves the gays. And is in charge of the Census. No alarm bells.

Adding names and personal identifiers to detailed demographics and profiling information that can be linked to health records doesn’t sound at all problematic when it is overseen by a man who once said, “Unfortunately, gays are here and, if the disease their unnatural acts helped spread doesn’t wipe out humanity, they’re here to stay.”



A chap called Roger Clarke has provided a very useful overview which outlines the nature of the changes, options for noncompliance and the type of correspondence people have received in the past when not complying.

The Australian Privacy Foundation have some good info, as do the Electronic Frontiers Australia with some options for civil disobedience. Gizmodo have also written up an overview.

What is the fuss all about?

Census in Australia has previously not linked names to data, and in fact decided against it in 2011 citing concerns about public backlash. Maybe they were hoping we wouldn’t notice? But there are massive and widespread concerns coming out now with fears of privacy breaches, and wholesale confusion about the changes.

Concerns have been raised by privacy and civil liberties groups, and in particular by someone who was a long term employee at the Australian Bureau of Statistics.

In other countries Census data has been used to profile Arab Americans, and it’s not such a huge leap to imagine that being applied here. Census and similar records were used to intern Japanese Americans, and organise the mass murder of people in the Holocaust. Whilst some would say that is a leaning into the dramatic, we already know through the Snowden leaks that there is widespread surveillance already happening, people being profiled for political activity, and quite frankly, our right wing lurching, meta data storing, internet-incompetent government probably don’t need any more personal data on us.

Oh, and did we mention that the ABS have admitted 14 data breaches in the last few years? And ABS staffers have been jailed for insider trading using ABS data?

Census data is lawfully not supposed to be shared with courts or other government agencies, however on the ABS own information page referencing privacy concerns over the collection of names they state “whilst the Census has always been valuable in its own right, when used in combination with other data the Census can provide even greater insight”.

The Australian Privacy Foundation also note that the ABS says:

  • The combination of Census data and education data can provide insight into employment outcomes from the various educational pathways available to Australians, and
  • The combination of Census data and health data can help improve Australia’s understanding and support of people who require mental health services and assist with the design of better programs of support and prevention.
  • The retention of addresses will also support the ABS Address Register enabling more efficient survey operations, reducing the cost to taxpayers and the burden on Australian households.

Think about what the government already has legally on file about you – your income, tax status, your medical and social security, Centrelink details – do you really want to give them more detailed information that could be used to locate you by religion, identify people, and whole suburbs for racial profiling and cross referencing incredibly personal data?

We already know that supposedly private data is breached by government employees – whether that be police looking up details of ex partners, medical records being kept insecurely or healthcare workers accessing patient records for family court cases.

A talkback caller purportedly from Department of Defence says it’s all connected anyway?

Should we trust a government we already know is harvesting our data?

They say yes, and one of the reasons they want this information is because the government cares about the life expectancy of aboriginal people. Or accurately reporting it at least. (Pro tip: stop locking up children and killing them in custody, that might help with the stats)

One of the people who has been defending the role of the Census says this:

Australian National University demographer Liz Allen sees it as way to make surveys less invasive. “If you were to ask people what medication they are taking, most probably wouldn’t be able to tell you or would find the topic too sensitive,” she says. “But linking the census data to pharmaceutical benefits records can get that data and get it linked to all sorts of other information without the need to go back to people over and over again.”

Um. Okay.

 So what is actually happening on August 9?

Many households in cities (it is by household, not individual) will get online codes in letters this week and access to fill it in online. The name field will be required in this instance. Theoretically you are supposed to fill it in on the day to reflect the occupants of your house THAT DAY, but more than 140 000 have already filled it in.

Census collectors will be visiting other areas, and presumably areas with less access to good internet, or older residents. (We recommend being nice to them! The mess is not their fault). If you get a paper copy delivered by a collector it has your household address already printed on it.

Collectors have scanners and each household will have a unique 12 digit code cross referenced to their address. We don’t know if this is linked to residential names listed with the Australian Electoral Commission but would presume so?

In the instance of online forms, some people have suggested using a name generator, false names, or this Censusfail.com link which will allow the text to be legible to humans but will scramble the unique identifier linkage allowing the text to be read and linked by computer.

When your name is stored, it will likely be run through a process that performs a one way encoding known as hashing and salting. The Australian Bureau of Statistics privacy policy refers to this as an ‘anonymous linkage key’. Anyone with access to this key cannot decode it to reveal your name. However, your name and address can be taken from another source and run through the same encoding process to bring datasets together; linking your census answers with your medical records, international travel or other information of interest.

EDIT (5/8) More information about the process is outlined in this helpful article from overseas with a bonus Crocodile Dundee picture.

Some other suggestions we have seen:

  • Go camp for the census! With glitter and tents! It will be in-tents! If you are in the great outdoors and away from your house looking fabulous then they can’t come knocking. (More formal accommodation have registers and Census forms for guests).
  • Visit a friend’s house, and hide in the closet or pretend you have an invisibility cloak, or ask them not to list you on their form.
  • Go overseas! You don’t have to fill in the form if you are overseas so if your privacy is important to you, just hop on a romantic mid week getaway to Bali or New Zealand. Mkay. Easy.
  • Go paper. At least that way you can choose what you fill in. There are a range of different theories about paper forms in various links above – some say use a light blue pen, some say don’t give a name, some say as long as you say your religion is Jedi, it is all OK. Basically the reason for paper is that you can choose to omit your name, however if delivered to your house it will already have your address on it. (We don’t know if ones posted out have your address on them yet).
  • Order a paper form and swap with your neighbour, or take into a work or community building on the 9th and swap with each other (this means if there is a unique identifier on your form it gets distanced from you, but messes up their data) That is if you can get one. It’s hard to get through on their phones.
  • Call up and order a big bunch of forms and have a #CensusFail #CensusBurn party, and drunk dial ABS on the 9th August to receive a phone message saying “We have been overwhelmed with responses to our servers going down and this total debacle. Damn you and your supposed high speed internet Turnbull. We are crying in a corner. Laterz”
  • Contact your local MP and Senator and tell them your concerns.
  • Go hunting Pokemon all night.
  • Organise a #CampCensus – occupy a city location, in homage to the homophobic Minister for Census Action, and bring glitter and feather boas, and various non binary finery… you won’t be at your address and you will be with other gorgeous folks.


Arguments have been made that it is unlawful for the ABS to demand your name, by someone who used to work at the ABS, and counter arguments have been made that state that every answer not accurately filled in could theoretically trigger an offence under the act (failing or refusing to answer a question in the census can be an offence under the Census and Statistics Act 1905 if a person receives a direction from the ABS to complete a form)

If you don’t fill in the form, theoretically a $180 fine is the risk, ($180 per day actually, its in the link above, but its hard to find evidence of many people copping a multi day fine in the $1000s, although the scare campaign seems to have perked up in the last couple of days) however it seems there needs to be a substantial effort made by Census collectors to make multiple visits, and an escalatory process of contact with several different written responses before this is triggered.

Duncan Young, head of the Census Program was in the media this week saying they have never fined anyone for being late with their Census form – if you are having trouble ordering a paper copy… which could be because 400 000 people have already requested one…and they are the ones that got through!

There are penalties up to $1800 (10 penalty units) for giving false information, though it is unclear how, or if this is verified.

The one section you don’t have to fill in is religion. The champs who wrote the act back in 1905 clearly thought this should be private information. You can read the updated Census and Statistics act here. (As an aside there is campaign to have people list No Religion to stop Census stats being used to justify tax payer funds being diverted to churches  and other religious infrastructure)

In 2011, 800 000 people did not fill in the census, and there were 1,282 notices of direction issued and 78 prosecution actions approved. (Edit: in the last 72 hours we have seen multiple different articles about huge fines for the Census – which makes it look like a PR management strategy/scare campaign. Bear in mind these articles reference small examples over a long period of time before freaking out)

UPDATE (4/8) Leslie Cannold has shared some legal information although we believe the false information penalty is $1800 as referenced above.

So, with the level of outcry and the previous form for following through on prosecutions being so slim, we leave it in your hands (Or Brenda’s flippers) to determine the risk.

But what should I do? We want to encourage active reflection, and consideration which is why we have suggested a range of options. Most people are arguing paper is best, and that false information is a higher risk than leaving spaces blank. Also, that if you value the Census, as many do, that accurate information is useful. However, it seems paper forms are still linked back to your household address and possibly your name if cross referenced with AEC and other data, so bear that in mind. Also bear in mind one of the most secure agencies in the world – the NSA has been hacked and leaked from… and consider how safe you think your data will be. But above anything: BE INFORMED. Be active in defence of your privacy. 

brenda and census 2


You can get in contact with the ABS and theoretically request a paper form. You can also try calling up to order one, but many people have had problems getting through. You can also request a paper one via a special automated service (1300 820 275) but you need to use your unique log in code from your letter to do so.

Apparently the ABS have put on 300 extra people/phone lines and can’t handle the demand. In fact, they have managed to mess up in quite an extraordinary way. Australians have typically supported or been indifferent to the census, with many people acknowledging the need for accurate demographic information for many people and organisations.

Their refusal to engage with critiques, offer solutions to problems, not answering questions on the now growing twitter-storm, and even doing things like blocking, yes BLOCKING people on twitter who are asking them questions – doesn’t do much for faith in the public institution. And they are getting hammered for it.

In the interests of balance we offer this not particularly compelling piece by an ex ABS staffer vaguely referencing but not particularly addressing privacy concerns…. “Given Australia’s demographic and fiscal outlook, poor census data risks jeopardising the future.” (Yawn. Surely there are compelling stories of awesome historical analysis or family reunions or something-actually-good that has come from linking names to data – could you not find anything? Not everyone cries over a fiscal outlook sob story)

Another government response can be found here

Many are now concerned that the data will be inaccurate, compromised and permanently damage the reputation of the Census. But wait, if you disagree they have a twibbon you can show your support with! Slay!

Our suggestion – make a public announcement people can leave the name field blank without penalty and adjust the online form to allow for this. Engage with the criticisms with accurate responses. And get rid of the homophobe.

Edit: The good folks at thoughtworks had similar ideas, posted in an open letter on the 3rd August as well.

5/8: Digital Rights Watch also published this.

The writer of this article committed civil disobedience in 2006 and didn’t fill in a Census form due to discriminatory lack of options for gender and sexuality. Whilst not ideal, there are now “other” options for these sections. This year the writer will not be handing a name over, that is for sure. We do not encourage anyone to commit acts of civil disobedience – we leave that to the cartoon penguins. We work to protect the natural environment, but in our spare time we care about social justice, privacy and people being informed of their rights.

This article was collated over late July, and early August and published on 3/8/16. It is being edited, and added to, as new information comes in, or is clarified as the debate unfolds.

1 thought on “Census and Sensibility – privacy concerns

  1. Mark

    The below text is an excerpt from the ABS website under the title of “Confidence in statistics”, somewhat ironically (http://www.abs.gov.au/websitedbs/Corporate.nsf/Home/government+investment+in+the+ABS#Confidence):

    “The ABS currently maintains more than 500 systems through our many business areas. Some of our most critical IT infrastructure components are over 30 years old. One in three ICT applications have been classed as unreliable, with issues occurring daily or weekly, putting critical statistical data at risk. Further, one in six applications are no longer supported by the vendor due to it being outdated technology.

    A 2014 ABS assessment found that the current ICT infrastructure is highly vulnerable to failure and error, and the ability of ICT staff to maintain the existing systems is becoming increasingly compromised.”

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