Census 2016: Will collecting names result in bad data?

By Andrea Leong and James Jansson

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From 2016, the Australian Bureau of Statistics will retain all names and addresses collected in the census. The ABS quietly announced these plans in November 2015 and made the change after a 3-week consultation process. The fact that this change was made so quickly and so quietly is concerning in itself. The announcement has since spiralled into a public relations nightmare.

Previously, names and addresses were stripped from census data after 18 months, and used only* to ensure that a person had completed the census (and it is also thought that people give more accurate answers when their real name is attached to a survey).

From 2016, names and addresses will be retained for up to 4 years (initially, no end date was specified, implying indefinite retention of this information).

It is unclear at the time of writing whether omitting name and/or address from an otherwise complete and accurate census form will leave respondents liable for the usual fines for not completing the census. The only advice so far is that it will be a matter for the Director of Public Prosecution to deal with.

One of the fiercest campaigners against the new rule is Bill McLennan, the former Australian Statistician. McLennan believes that the ABS has no right to demand names and addresses as part of the census (he has previously criticised the bureau's current methodology). Former ABS employee, Ross Hamilton, has also condemned the move.

[The ABS's] commitment to this plan reveals that matching data to individuals is more important to them than collecting accurate demographic information.

The justification given for retaining personally-identifying information is that census data will be more powerful if it is matched to respondents. While this is true, it needs to be weighed against the right to privacy and the potential for misuse. An opt-in system for retaining names and addresses could easily be implemented for those who do not mind sharing this information.

While assuring the public that it must comply with robust privacy laws, the ABS also claims it has done its due diligence by conducting a privacy impact assessment. However, the Australian Privacy Foundation (PDF) has suggested the assessment was a flawed process and was not an independent analysis. Further, laws do not stop targeted misuse by bad actors. This is not an abstract hypothetical, but a recent reality – Victorian police officers were caught misusing databases to target vulnerable people such as family violence survivors. Privacy laws are also subject to change, by the same government which has introduced mass surveillance of all citizens.

Whether or not the new rule is a real threat to the freedoms of individuals, these concerns have many Australians talking about ways to avoid being identified or refusing to answer some or all census questions.

Having seen the backlash, the ABS is knowingly introducing a change that will lead to holes or inaccuracies in the data collected. Their continued commitment to this plan reveals that matching data to individuals is more important to them than collecting accurate demographic information.

Here are some predictions about which statistics will be affected by the ABS's heavy-handed approach to the 2016 census:

Number of people per dwelling

We can expect to see this number drop through the floor. There are plenty of households with more people than there should be. A long-term record of illegally housing too many people will be scary for some Australians filling out the census.

The impact of incorrectly filling out the number of people in a household will lead to inaction on one of the most important quality of life issues for Australians: the price of housing.

Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander background

Some people of Aboriginal heritage don't make their Aboriginality known, for good reason. The unfortunate reality of modern Australia is that there is a stigma attached to being Aboriginal, and when someone reveals their Aboriginality, they expose themselves to different treatment.

Mistreatment can also be institutional. The stolen generation is an example of how Aboriginal people were targeted disproportionately by the government. We still have national programs directed at Aboriginal people; for example the NT Intervention is racially driven. Having the Australian government formally classify you as Aboriginal is a risk.

Sections 25 and 51(xxvi) of the Australian Constitution allow the government to disqualify Australians from voting based on race, or to make laws for a subset of the population, based on race, respectively. While these provisions remain, it is unethical to require Australians to identify their racial background.

Religion

This question has always been optional. This year, many more might decide they don't wish to answer the question for fear of discrimination or violence.

In particular, it is easy for Muslim people to feel marginalised when ideas like banning all Muslim immigration and linking Islam to each latest violent event worldwide are given air on prime-time mainstream media.

What can we do?

It is a legal requirement to complete the census. Failing to do so attracts a fine, and the Science Party does not advocate doing this.

Some options to avoid the collection of names and addresses have been suggested by concerned Australians:

  • Australian hotels and motels have copies of the census form for travellers on census night, but if someone is camping without access to a form or is out of the country on census night, they do not need to complete the census (but not everyone wants to, or can, do this);
  • Bill McLennan suggests that those who wish to participate in the census, but do not want to be identified, can request a paper census form and leave the name and address fields blank without fear of prosecution (however, the Census Hotline has been inundated and unable to answer every call);
  • Social media commentators have suggested that anyone who takes the above option may swap their paper with another person's, to invalidate any identifying marks that might exist on the paper.

Where does this leave us?

Given the negative media coverage and associated comments it is clear that these changes are unpopular with many Australians. Instead of addressing these concerns by offering leniency to people who do not want to complete the "name" field, the ABS has brushed off these questions and complaints, suggesting that privacy must always take a back seat to more powerful data collection. Ultimately we must either complete the census fully or, if we value our privacy, break an unreasonable law that will leave us liable for hefty fines.

The Science Party supports the census and feels that the integrity of the data is its most important feature. We are therefore calling on the ABS to assure the public that no fines will be issued to Australians who complete the census but choose not to include personally identifying details.

In the absence of such a reassurance, the Science Party supports calls to postpone the 2016 census until public confidence in the process is restored to the point where the integrity of the data collected is not at risk.

 


UPDATE 5/8/2016: This post originally stated that "names and addresses will be retained for at least 4 years" rather than "up to 4 years". 

*UPDATE 8/8/2016: We missed this report from July 21st, in which Chief Statistician David Kalisch appears to admit that the ABS already links census data to other government datasets during the 18-month retention period.