Jedi order symbol: Gardek via Deviant Art

Jedi order symbol: Gardek via Deviant Art

In the week before Christmas last year, the Australian Bureau of Statistics quietly trashed your privacy. We have only a few months to claim it back.

In December 2015, the ABS announced its plans to collect and keep the name and address of every person in Australia, starting with the August 2016 census. And to then use your name and address, to link your census answers to other sets of data, like health and educational records, so that the ABS can develop “a richer and dynamic statistical picture of Australia through the combination of Census data with other survey and administrative data”.

This article is by Anna Johnston from Salinger Privacy. Anna is a former Deputy Privacy Commissioner for NSW, and was Chair of the Australian Privacy Foundation, 2005-06. It is republished here with permission. See the original article

That’s right – census data could be linked to health records too. So that the ABS can do things like “(understand) and support … people who require mental health services”.

This proposal represents the most significant and intrusive collection of identifiable data about you, me, and every other Australian, that has ever been attempted. It will allow the ABS to build up, over time, a rich and deep picture of every Australian’s life, in an identifiable form.

Up until now, the name and address portion of census forms was not retained by the ABS; just as soon as the rest of your census answers were transcribed, the paper forms were destroyed.

But the new proposal is to keep name and address, as well as your answers to all the Census questions included this year, such as sex, age, marital status, indigenous status, religious affiliation, income, education level, ancestry, language spoken at home, occupation, work address, previous home address, vehicles garaged at your address, and the relationships between people living in the same home.

Statements from the ABS which trivialise the risks posed by stripping away census anonymity have missed the point. Seeking to justify the proposal by saying that the ABS will never release identifiable information ignores the point that they shouldn’t have it in the first place. And, as my mother taught me – you shouldn’t make promises you cannot keep.

ABS CC-BY

ABS CC-BY

The risks include leaks from corrupted ABS staff, or organised criminals who wish to perpetrate identity theft and fraud by hacking into the database. The ABS is not magically immune to the risk of data breaches. It was only last year that one of their staff was convicted of leaking data to a friend at the NAB as part of a multi-million dollar insider trading scam.

Blithe reassurances about the security of census information ring hollow as we have seen the slow but steady fallout from so many recent data security breaches, from the Ashley Maddison hack to the Department of Immigration’s bungle which saw 9,250 asylum seekers’ details published online. Whether from external hackers, deliberate misuse by ABS staff or negligent losses of data, the only way to prevent data breaches from occurring is to not hold the information in the first place.

Of even more concern is the temptation posed for the Government of a centralised population dataset, just within its reach. How simple it would be for the federal police or ASIO to require the ABS to hand over details of all Muslim men. Or for Centrelink to demand to know just who is living with whom on what income, while claiming welfare benefits. This is the greatest potential impact of the proposal – that the ABS becomes the unwitting tool of a Government intent on mass population surveillance.

The ABS’s own privacy review noted that it faces the risk of what’s known as function creep: that in the future, “name and address information from responses to the 2016 Census may be used for purposes beyond what is currently contemplated by the ABS”. In what seems a fairly breath-taking degree of naivety, the ABS decided that the risk of this happening is “very low”, but that if it did, its response would be to review internal protocols and “consult affected stakeholders”.

The statisticians must be living in fantasy land if they think that once they hold identifiable data on all 24 million people in Australia, that not a single government department, Minister or police force will be interested in tapping into that data for their own, non-research purposes. Just look at the agencies queueing up to get their hands on the metadata that telecommunications companies must now keep by law.

And in the event that a Trump-esque leader demands that the ABS hand over the names and addresses of all Muslims living in Australia (as US census data was used to round up and imprison Japanese-Americans in World War II), how is a review of internal protocols, or consultation with stakeholders, going to fix things?

The only way to prevent function creep is to not hold the information in the first place.

A further privacy risk is re-identification from joined-up data. Even if names and addresses are used only for linking purposes – that is, to link your census answers with information about you from another dataset (such as health or education records), and then stripped out again – the added richness of combined datasets makes it easier to re-identify individuals. Disturbingly, the ABS’s privacy review did not even consider this risk of re-identification, also known as “statistical disclosure risk”. Nor did the concept of Big Data even rate a mention. If our chief statisticians are not calculating the statistical disclosure risk of their own proposal, we are all in trouble.

The only way to prevent re-identification from joined-up datasets is to not link them in the first place.

This proposal represents a massive breach of public trust, and shifts all of the privacy risks onto us, the people of Australia.

But it also carries enormous operational risks for governments, businesses, non-profits and community groups, which each rely on census data for evidence-based decision-making. Research tells us that when people do not trust a data collection, significant numbers of people will simply provide misinformation. Surveys conducted periodically by the Office of the Australian Privacy Commissioner found that around three in ten people stated that they had falsified their name or other details in order to protect their privacy when using websites in 2013; this figure was a jump from 25% in 2007.

In 2001, the ABS were worried enough about the impact on the integrity of census data to try and avoid a joke doing the rounds that people should list their religion on the census form as ‘Jedi knight’. Their response was eminently sensible, pointing out that the accuracy of census data is important for all Australians, as it impacts on decision-making across all aspects of our lives: from where to draw electoral boundaries, to the building of schools and hospitals, and the routing of local buses. Further, the question about religion is the only optional question on the census; so if you object to being asked about religion, you can simply not answer it, without risking criminal penalties.

Nonetheless, in the 2001 census results, just over 73,000 people described themselves as Jedi, which is more people than identified as Salvation Army or Seventh Day Adventists, and only slightly fewer than those who listed their religion as Judaism.

If census data can be so easily skewed by a bunch of Star Wars fans, the potential impact of enough people being sufficiently concerned about safeguarding their privacy to contemplate providing inaccurate responses, or not responding at all, should surely make the ABS think twice about this proposal.

And what happens to other nationally-important data collections that don’t have the force of law behind them? The ABS’s review did not consider how a loss of public trust in the census might impact on some people’s willingness to accept or embrace other government projects, such as the new My Health Record, if they fear the linking of that data with their census records.

I am surprised that the many stakeholders who seek to use census data, or indeed the agencies which run any other major government programs, are apparently willing to risk the integrity of the data on which they rely. Or perhaps, like the rest of us, they were too busy in the week before Christmas to notice that our privacy protections were being wrenched away.

The ABS’s privacy review noted that it faces the risk that this proposal “may cause public concern which results in a reduction of participation levels in ABS collections, and/or a public backlash”. Its suggestions for mitigating that risk are mostly focused on PR efforts to calm us all down, but it also says that the ABS will “reconsider the privacy design for the proposal, if required”.

Which means that there is still hope, that with enough public pressure, the ABS itself – or at least the governments, businesses and charities which care about the reliability of census data – will see this proposal for the folly it is, and return to a census format designed to ensure both the integrity of our data, and the protection of our privacy.

For more information, including details of actions that people have taken in the past, please see our Census 2016 page.

20 comments

  1. And if not enough pressure is mounted?

    It's an offence to not answer questions and a worse offense to answer falsely. So what are we to do?

    Comment by J on 23 March 2016 at 11:55
  2. There is actually an explicit exemption to those offences for the religion question.

    Comment by Jon Lawrence on 23 March 2016 at 12:45
  3. Yes, Jon, you're right

    https://www.legislation.gov.au/Details/C2015C00247/Html/Text#_Toc420934428

    However it's a defence and the onus of proof is on you. I'm not sure what that means in practice. I'm meant to prove that I'm a Jedi so I don't have to tell the ABS I'm a Jedi?

    As for my previous question: 'so what are we meant to do', I have since found an excellent page on the whole issue.

    http://www.rogerclarke.com/DV/Census-2016.html#What

    That page details how and where you might complain, with specific objections and stats you might quote, and what you might do on the night, if nothing changes.

    Comment by J on 23 March 2016 at 13:27
  4. Unless i'm misreading, technically the exemption is only for failing to answer, not for answering misleadingly.

    But if we have a religion which directs us not to answer any question about our identity to a census without privacy guarantees, then all ID questions become "relating to religion", right?

    Comment by Drew Mayo on 23 March 2016 at 14:21
  5. Like it. It would also be great to have all the tax benefits of being a religion...

    Comment by Jon Lawrence on 23 March 2016 at 14:35
  6. My religion is F%CK THE ABS

    Comment by Andy on 23 March 2016 at 18:08
  7. Any insight into the ABS being prohibited from releasing the identity information "under any circumstances"? Is the definition of disclosure well defined for the census?

    Question 4: Will the information I supply be given to another government agency? Answer: The legislation under which the ABS operates prohibits the disclosure of identifiable information of a personal or domestic nature under any circumstances. http://www.abs.gov.au/websitedbs/D3310114.nsf/4a256353001af3ed4b2562bb00121564/95141c4318c60ab8ca256e770082af5b!OpenDocument

    Comment by Tommy on 24 March 2016 at 14:54
  8. As for the above comment from @J that it is an offence not to answer, well that's not true. The initial invitation is merely a request, and only is it an offence if you are directed in writing by the Australian Statistician to provide it.

    Question 2: Is the survey compulsory? Answer: All ABS surveys are conducted under the authority of the Census and Statistics Act 1905. Initially you are being requested to answer the questions, but if the Australian Statistician directs you in writing to provide the information, you are legally obliged to do so. http://www.abs.gov.au/websitedbs/D3310114.nsf/4a256353001af3ed4b2562bb00121564/95141c4318c60ab8ca256e770082af5b!OpenDocument

    Comment by Tommy on 24 March 2016 at 14:57
  9. simple answer is dont fill in the questions you do not want to answer.It is a census not a legal document and it is none of the government's business under the Australian constitution and the most important document ever written the magnacarter which takes such power away from those ever snooping blood sucking morons in power. So just fill in what you like and stuff them and they know it.

    Comment by fred on 24 March 2016 at 15:39
  10. Just do what I do every Census - lie through your teeth - do you really think everyone writes down all their personal stuff in these forms? Of course not. A goodly serving of civil disobedience is well overdue.

    Comment by Joyce on 31 March 2016 at 09:08
  11. Can you please do another post about this disturbing matter that doesn't trivialise it as a rehashed geek-joke?

    Comment by Steven Pickles on 1 April 2016 at 13:21
  12. Steven not sure why you see it as some sort of "re-hashed geek joke". The issue isn't trivial and EFA doesn't see it as trivial nor report it as trivial.

    One of the issues that organisations like ours face in confronting situations like this is the number of Australians who simply don't care about their privacy, at any level, right down to the national auto response "If you're doing nothing wrong, then you have nothing to hide".

    The major problem with the Australian electorate is that they don't think about their vote in 96% of cases (voting above the line), they don't value their privacy enough to make a comment, or they simply don't understand why we make a fuss about it.

    Many Australians can be turned just a little, if they see something that makes sense, hanging off the blunt end of something that makes them laugh.

    Lastly, there is absolutely nothing to prevent you writing an article about your views, including why Australian voters have no interest in how our country is being turned to the dark path, by the Murdochs of the universe. We will most definitely carry it and we will promote it as well.

    Daemon Singer
    Treasurer - EFA

    Comment by Daemon Singer on 5 April 2016 at 08:11
  13. I have deliberately timed my well earned oversea trip to coincide with the 2016 census. Alas not a viable option for everybody/every-time.

    Comment by john smith on 4 May 2016 at 01:56
  14. Hi, I was one the people behind the original 2001 Jedi Religion Campaign.

    It was actually 100% legit and also 100% a joke at the same time. The point was that for a generation (and in fact a few generations now) the reality is that Star Wars taught them about a sense of religion and so in a way they really are part of this in a religious sense.

    Yes Star Wars is fiction.... lets for now skip comparison to competing religions... and Yes - The Force scientifically does not exist without stretching a lot of concepts and ideas... BUT we can still believe it. Belief affects and changes us, so the religion is real.

    Your not lying if you say Jedi on your census form if watching Star Wars you experienced a moment of wonderment or deep thought about how you relate to others and the world around you. On a separate note, its not within the authority of the Australian Bureau of Statistics to say what is and what is not a religion. That my good friends, is religious discrimination. And Australia has laws about that.

    Comment by Luke on 9 May 2016 at 16:10
  15. The intro states "In the week before Christmas last year, the Australian Bureau of Statistics quietly trashed your privacy. We have only a few months to claim it back." But then the article doesn't outline how we can claim it back. Can the legislation be reversed or is civil disobedience at the time of the census the only option?
    Also I read an option that states if you are not in a household at the time of the census you don't have to complete. So if I went camping would that suffice? And would I need to prove that (and is a tent a household??).

    Comment by Mirgirl on 17 May 2016 at 16:16
  16. Is there no way to conscientiously object?

    I don't see how a member of a free society can be compelled to hand over things they know by a statistician. A statistician that saw fit to run 30 year old computers and Internet-connected Windows computers beyond their supported dates (and probably still does), and still expects us to trust they can keep the data from miscreants, gubmints, big data and malicious actors inc. our many evolving forms Artificial Intelligence.

    In a war, one might object to killing on religious grounds. Why one can't object on ethical let alone moral or legal grounds I can't fathom, but if it wasn't so, a gubmint could not raise an army when it chooses to engage in a war.

    Must we form a religion that practices values around privacy, online security and data-management?

    Comment by Cornered on 23 July 2016 at 02:37
  17. I disagree about the labeling of Jedi as a protest.

    Firstly - there's enough issues with people screaming about the 'muslim takeover' of this country to lend credence to the Atheist Foundation of Australia's case that out of ALL the questions that should be answered honestly - it should be the RELIGION question.

    Making a religion that 'is 100% a joke', as the creator themselves in this thread has said, is not useful.

    Instead, try something different, like a false name. That way, the data for religion reflects a secular country, and doesn't infringe on rights.

    There's already a group doing that at https://censusnamegenerator.com/Home/FAQ

    Comment by Anna on 28 July 2016 at 16:32
  18. Seems to me that with such growth in government held data regarding Australian citizens and residents, that there's also the prospect that a less stable and more immoral (can they even?) government might start to "lose" people from their systems for what ever reasons. I'm given to understand that in New Zealand, people who are deemed at risk of long term unemployment disappear from government records at the end of a special training program. Not many get jobs and the remainder have to look for help everywhere else, churches, social support organisations, etc. Here, jobseekers are so poorly supported they are nearly out of government systems already. I would hate to see this NZ issue or other dictatorial actions happening in Australia. Action is mandatory.

    We have to go past the issue of immediate problems. The real issue is that we need to re-find the good, right and kind ways which guided how we should treat each other. The citizens of Australia can set a good example for governments. We also need to find for ourselves State and Commonwealth governments which are honest, compassionate and just. Who has the best vision and plan for Australia? Who is responsible for implementation? Perhaps we all are.

    Human rights don't exist in a vacuum to be applied when it suits. Rather they are the product of daily carrying out the duty of care (honest, compassionate, just). And the "fair go" concept rests upon a willingness not to just provide it to those who have gained publicity, but to make it the rule for all of us to follow. This is the beginning of true mate-ship. The behaviours of governments and businesses who have taken advantage of the Internet and data techniques already abuse citizens' privacy. A new openness is mandatory for governments and for all of us.

    Society should not be about command and control, but rather about our lives, about working together to improve Australia. But this collection of data by governments brings altogether too much probability that the data will be used to control, to discipline, to "manage" the Aussie population in ways not heard of prior to say thirty years ago. Having somebody's money in your hand is a temptation. Having someone's data in your hand is a temptation. Every temptation has a deed in front of it, waiting to be implemented. The prospects are not pleasant. We must not go that way as citizens and residents of Australia. In fact we must set a good example for our politicians, require them to follow that example, and if they will not, then we must replace them with those who will.

    If we fail to meet current challenges and make appropriate changes, we will easily be controlled by those in power, elected or not.

    Comment by Phil on 29 July 2016 at 14:50
  19. It's not an offence to fail to complete the census. The offence consists of failing to comply with a notice issued under subsection 10(4) of the Census Act. The letters being sent out by the ABS cannot be such notices, because the notice has to include the form, and the ABS is asking people to either fill in the form online, or required a paper form.

    So the option exists of having a widespread boycott of voluntary competion of the census, forcing the ABS to send out a huge number of notices.

    Comment by Sylvia Else on 30 July 2016 at 15:11
  20. I identify myself as a follower of Jedi philosophy albeit not as a religion but as a spiritual path. Hence for me, this is not a joke. I will actually be marking myself down as a Jedi.
    For those who think I'm kidding consider this; if a religion can be based on a fantastical fictitious story and a philosophy that embodies compassion, kindness, humanity, acceptance and forgiveness as their core, then the whole tenet of Jediism fits in perfectly with other established religions.
    Check out Temple of the Jedi Order (Jediism, Jedi Realists and Jedi Living web sites and forums if you think I'm kidding.

    Comment by John on 30 July 2016 at 17:21