Monday, August 08, 2016

Census 'no worse than Facebook': minister

The minister responsible for the census has compared it to Facebook, saying concern about its ability to track people is "much ado about nothing".

Michael McCormack, who also has responsibility for small business, was responding to Senate powerbroker Nick Xenophon, who on Monday vowed to withhold his name from the census and face fines of $180 per day rather than have his name kept on file.

The Bureau has announced that the names collected in this year's census will be retained instead of being thrown away after processing, as in the past. They will be used to create linkage keys, which will allow the personal information in the census to be linked to information gleaned from other surveys to provide a richer picture of those surveyed. The answers could also be linked to medical, criminal, road traffic and educational records.

Although the names will be destroyed within four years, the linkage keys created from the names will be kept indefinitely.

Senator Xenophon foreshadowed legislation to make the provision of names voluntary, which he says he will attempt to backdate to Tuesday night's census...

Mr McCormack said the government would examine Senator Xenophon's proposal "in the fullness of time" but expected him to fill out his census form regardless.

"I think we're making far too much of this, names and addresses and privacy breaches," he said. "Anybody with a supermarket loyalty card, anybody who does tap-and-go, anybody who buys things online, they provide more information indeed probably to what is available to ABS staff."

"I note with some humour really that many people are going on Twitter and Facebook making various comments about the Bureau of Statistics, about the census, and about me as well, when in fact wherever they go, it tracks you, on your Facebook account, so I can't really see what the big deal is. I think sometimes it's much ado about nothing."

Reminded that the census was compulsory, whereas Facebook and Twitter were not, Mr McCormack said the census had to be compulsory "to allow the government and the Bureau to track people, and for governments to get the raw data so that we can provide the sorts of infrastructure".

The Bureau's chief, David Kalisch, said people were more likely to tell the truth if they had to provide their names.

Senator Xenophon said the knowledge that the names would be retained and turned into keys used to track them might make people less likely to tell the truth on census forms. He warned that it could be "financially crippling" for others to follow his lead. He would have to think about whether he went to jail rather than pay the fines.

Mr McCormack said Mr Kalisch had briefed Senator Xenophon late in the day and believed his position had softened.

"I am sure he will be better informed, and I look forward to him filling out the census, like the other 100 per cent of Australians should," he said.

Speaking on his return to Adelaide from Canberra late on Monday, an angry Senator Xenophon said the briefing consisted of him listening on the phone for 15 minutes before catching a plane.

"Listening politely to someone does not mean you agree with their position," he said.

Senators Sarah Hanson-Young and Scott Ludlam will also refuse to provide their names.

Anna Johnston, a former deputy NSW privacy commissioner, writes in Fairfax papers on Tuesday that she won't be completing the census at all because she hasn't been asked for consent to being tracked by her name.

"I know that I could give the ABS misinformation instead," she writes. "But I won't do that, because I do believe in the integrity of the census data. I don't want people to have to give misinformation in order to protect themselves."

Mr McCormack said the decision to retain names was taken by the Bureau rather than the government but that the government approved of it.

ABS census chief Duncan Young said more than 200,000 people had already submitted their online forms. Many more had started to complete them, saved them and not yet pressed 'send'.

In The Age and Sydney Morning Herald