The Australian Bureau of Statistics is implementing a significant change for the 2016 Census, due to be conducted on 9th August.

While most people support the concept of the census, which is used as a key data source for all sorts of policy decisions across both public and private sectors, some people do have concerns about the privacy issues involved with of such a data collection project.

Such concerns tend to focus on the considerable intensity of personal data collected by modern Census forms, and by the legal obligation to answer every single question (except religion), irrespective of sensitivities.

The changes implemented for the 2016 Census are significant and are likely to increase privacy concerns.

New, but not improved

As reported by Independent Australia, former statistician Bill McLennan has said that the 2016 Census is, “without doubt […] the most significant invasion of privacy ever perpetrated on Australians by the ABS”. There are number of concerning changes to the 2016 Census. Mainly:

  1. Every person’s identity will remain linked to the data collected, forever1
    There is some debate over whether the retention period is four years, or indefinite. However, as former ABS staffer Ross Hamilton points out, the ABS is proposing only to update identifiable information based on the 2020 Census, not to strip identifying information entirely after four years.
    This constitutes a massive expansion compared to last Census, when this applied to only 5% (1 million people) of the population.
  2. The data about each person, from all available Census and ABS surveys, will be linked together1
    This is the stated explanation for identifying information being held: that with it, the ABS may build up an extremely robust profile of each individual in the country by linking and cross-referencing the various datasets it has available to it.
    This constitutes a massive expansion compared to last year where this applied to only 5% (1 million people) of the population.
  3. Additional data will be expropriated from other sources and added to each person’s record1
    This is entirely new, and very concerning. EFA has raised concerns over the breadth and depth of data already held by political parties, and taken together with the expansions in the ABS’s data collection and retention practices, it paints a very bleak picture of the future of privacy in Australia.
  4. Individual data about people and households will be made available to researchers. Nominally it will be de-identified, but in practice it will be so rich that it will be readily re-identifiable. 1
    This, again, is entirely new this year. As shown in recent research, de-identification of datasets is a very complex and involved process, which very often fails. In fact, so long as groups have another form of identifying information, de-identifying anonymised datasets has been shown to be fairly simple.
  5. In some cases, the individual data that is released to researchers will even include address, and “anonymised versions of names” (whatever that means). 1
    This is also new, or at least believed to be new, in 2016. As Roger Clarke notes, however, “[p]ossibly the ABS is already doing this, without public knowledge”.


Each of these features, individually, is a gross, unjustified and unacceptable intrusion into people’s privacy, and the combination of them is a serious breach of trust.

Many Australians will be so angry at these breaches of trust that the ABS’s reputation is may be irreparably damaged. More importantly, there is a real danger that many Australians will choose to provide inaccurate responses or to boycott the Census altogether, thereby putting at risk the entire project and the hundreds of millions of dollars it costs to run.

What are the problems with the new Census?

Name and address information is personal information. The information given in the census about religion, income, and so on is sensitive information. There is a real risk of this information being re-identified or the access to this information being increased in the future. In addition, data leaks continue to occur despite the best efforts of governments and organisations. The safest way to avoid risk is to destroy the names and addresses immediately.

As well as representing a threat to privacy, concerns have been raised about the integrity of the data obtained by the upcoming census. Although it is illegal to knowingly provide false or misleading information on a census form, it is feared that many people may avoid participating, or provide misleading information, in order to protect their privacy. Even on a relatively small scale, acts of civil disobedience with regard to the census could seriously skew the data. With so much of the public debate and government policy in Australia being based on an understanding of the population which leans heavily on census data, EFA is concerned about the implications of a misrepresentative census.

In previous censuses, respondents were allowed to opt-in to having personally identifiable information retained, and it is the position of EFA that respondents to the 2016 Census should have the same privacy protections afforded to respondents of previous censuses, in line with community expectations.


What are your rights and obligations?

You must complete the Census, fully and accurately, although you are not obliged to provide information on your religious affiliation. EFA is not a legal service, and cannot provide, in general or in specifics, legal advice. However, as reported by Independent Australia, “[names] can still still be collected on a voluntary basis but the ABS has no power to commence prosecution action for Australians not providing [their names]”. This does not constitute legal advice, merely the opinion of one commentator.



Should I boycott the Census or provide false information?

There are offences associated with knowingly providing false or misleading information, or failing to complete questions on demand, during a census.

Please note EFA does not advocate that any person provide false or misleading information on their census form. Nor does EFA advocate that any person should boycott or avoid completing the census. The following is provided purely for informational purposes so that people will understand the implications of certain actions.

In previous Census years, a considerable number of people have adopted various avoidance approaches:

  • some of those people have received successive follow-ups and letters
  • some of those people have later been threatened with prosecution
  • a much smaller number of those people have actually been prosecuted

Some of these avoidance techniques have included the following:

1. Avoiding being resident in any household on the Census date, Tuesday 9 August 2016
The Census is based on the premises, not the person, and hence if you aren’t resident you shouldn’t be recorded. This is the ‘gone fishin’ approach. You might find this event interesting: Community Event for Networking and Sense Under the Stars (C.E.N.S.U.S.).

2. If others in the household are submitting a return, instruct them to leave you off it
This may cause ructions within a family, but may be entirely appropriate in a shared house or flat.
The wording of the Act leaves open whether the ABS may still have the power to prosecute the objector.

3. Get an envelope and a form, and send a blank form in
This will very likely result in successive re-visits from the collector, followed by threatening letters from the ABS. But if enough people were to do it, the volume would be such that the ABS would not have enough resources to follow everyone up.

4. Avoid being at home when the Collector calls
This will require great persistence, because Collectors and their supervisors are paid to chase, chase, and chase again.

5. Be absent or too busy
Whenever the ABS’s contractor calls or arrives, some people make themselves absent or say that they’re too busy, and avoid appointments. This requires great persistence, because collectors and their supervisors are paid to chase, chase, and chase again. Eventually they may run out of time, although they have the option to argue to the magistrate that your continual busyness constitutes a refusal to answer.

6. Ask lots of questions
These may be about, for example, the process, the questions, the privacy protections, or the security of the data. This may be accompanied by saying or implying that you may be prepared to provide the data once you have satisfactory answers. Based on experience, the ABS is likely to reply slowly, and with pre-written, carefully-composed and vague text that does not answer your questions. It’s commonly necessary to ask the questions again, and address letters further up the organisation. It’s necessary to sustain your patience over many months until one side or the other gives up.

7. Provide made-up answers to the particular questions that are of greatest concern to you
This is not appropriate for people who do not like to be forced to lie in order to protect their privacy. Moreover, if the intention is to avoid prosecution, the lies need to be subtle enough that the ABS believes them, or considers them too difficult to prove to be lies. On the other hand, because ABS is handling 5-10 million forms, it may be impractical for them to check even for silly answers, let alone for plausible but incorrect answers.

8. Refuse to provide answers to the particular questions that are of greatest concern to you
It is likely that this will not be possible with the online form, so it would be necessary to demand a paper one. This approach appears less likely to lead to prosecution, and it seems likely that the magistrate would be both less likely to convict, and less likely to levy a significant fine.

9. Refuse to fill in the form
The ABS has the power to prosecute under Census and Statistics Act ss. 14-15, and to seek fines that the magistrate could choose to apply once, or for every day that the data is not provided. Some prosecutions do take place. In practice, only a very small proportion of the people who have failed to provide the data have ever been charged, and no report has been seen of any large fine being imposed.

Contact your MP

If you have concerns about these changes, you should contact your Federal MP or Senator.

This page is based on content produced by Roger Clarke of Xamax Consultancy Pty Ltd. Roger is a former Board member of EFA and has been a Board member of the Australian Privacy Foundation throughout its existence. For even more detail, including the historical context, please see the Xamax website.

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