Thursday, July 21, 2016

ABS endangers the census by asking for names

Expect to hear lots about the census. From August 1 we will be getting letters advising us of our login codes instead of the traditional hand-delivered forms. The catchphrase is "get online on August 9".

But what we won't be told as loudly is that there's another more fundamental revolution planned for 2016. The Bureau of Statistics is going to keep our names.

The deal used to be that our answers were anonymous. The bureau got to find out where we lived, where we were born, who we worked for, what we got paid and what religion we subscribed to, but it didn't get to keep our names.

The census collected statistics rather than information on individuals (although it was extended 10 years ago when the bureau began to ask us about our exact date of birth rather than our age).

This provision of our names will be compulsory. At least that's what the bureau says, although it is hard to see what the legal basis it would have to prosecute someone who refused to hand over their name.

The Census and Statistics Act empowers it to direct people to provide "statistical information" and requires it to "publish the results of these statistical collections". Names aren't usually thought of as statistics, and there would be an outrage if the bureau actually published them. Bill McLennan, a former head of the bureau who helped rewrite the Census and Statistics Act in the early 1980s, says flatly that it doesn't have the authority to demand names.

The bureau says they will be stored separately from the rest of the census for up to four years and released only in an "anonymised" form for projects "approved by a senior-level committee and subject to strict security provisions". Those projects will link what the bureau knows about us from the census with other information authorities know about us, "in the public good".

I can think of any number of such worthwhile linkages in the public good. One would be linking the census to the Pharmaceutical Benefits Scheme to find out what drugs are prescribed to people in what occupations and what family circumstances. Examples the bureau uses are weaker, including the better targeting of mental health services, something that could probably just as easily be done without names.

Tell the ABS this is the first you've heard of its decision to retain everyone's name and it'll scoff. It outlined it in a press release issued the Friday before Christmas with the misleadingly vague title of ABS response to Privacy Impact Assessment.

It conducted the privacy impact assessment itself and found that "retaining names and addresses for the purpose of richer and more-dynamic statistics and more-efficient statistical operations has very low risks to privacy, confidentiality and security". One of the risks it dismissed as low was "function creep" - a gradual increase in the use of names as more and more government agencies pressed the bureau to exapn its use of them.

In place of broad consultation (it appears not to have approached the Australian Privacy Foundation) it convened its own small focus groups. "In working through examples, focus groups were generally comfortable with the protections that the ABS would put in place," it says.

Which would be a change. The first time it put forward the idea in the lead-up to the 2006 census, it was rewarded with a damning (genuinely independent) privacy impact assessment by privacy expert Nigel Waters. It considered trying again in the lead-up to 2011 census but but was overruled by then Australian Statistician Brian Pink amid concern about a public backlash.

Since Pink left in 2014, the ABS has rumbled along in a leadership and oversight vacuum. He wasn't replaced for 11 months, during which time the bureau suffered appalling problems with its unemployment survey and drew up cost-saving plans to abandon the 2016 census and move to 10-year surveys rather than five.

Pink's successor, David Kalisch, flicked the switch to "go" only last May when the parliamentary secretary, Kelly O'Dwyer, managed to secure enough money to both upgrade the bureau's ageing aging computer system and retain the census.

Four months later O'Dwyer was promoted and replaced by Alex Hawke who has just been promoted and replaced by ... well this week no one was quite sure, but the census will probably become the responsibility of the Treasurer, Scott Morrison.

The daftest thing about the bureau's poorly communicated decision to retain and use our names is that it'll run alongside its existing "time capsule" program in which we are invited to give our consent for our details to be accessed in 99 years, but not before.

"Information is only kept for those persons who explicitly give their consent," the bureau's website assures us, somewhat redundantly. McLennan says what's planned is without doubt "the most significant invasion of privacy ever perpetrated on Australians by the ABS".

When the Crikey website wrote about it earlier this year, the ABS accused it of undermining the "complete public trust" it needed to conduct the census and get accurate rather than falsified information. It's making a good fist of it itself.

In The Age and Sydney Morning Herald