Photographer: James D. Morgan/Getty Images

Census Boycott Gathers Momentum Amid Australia Privacy Concerns

  • Senator demands law change to ensure data is anonymous
  • Widespread boycott could distort five-yearly snapshot

A backlash against Australia’s national census is gathering momentum with lawmakers joining calls to boycott Tuesday’s population count amid concern data gathered will be used to build wide-ranging profiles of individuals and violate their right to privacy.

Nick Xenophon, who leads a minority party in parliament, is refusing to provide his name to the compulsory census and thus won’t be able to submit a completed document, risking a fine of A$180 ($138) a day. Other lawmakers , including Greens Senator Sarah Hanson-Young, have also threatened to withhold their names.

Fearing a widespread boycott that could compromise data that’s essential for public service provision, the government has sought to downplay the concerns.

“Privacy matters,” Xenophon told reporters. The Australian Bureau of Statistics “has failed to make a compelling case on why names must be provided and stored for four years. All names will be turned into a code that ultimately can be used to identify you.”

The crux of the debate is over a “statistical linkage key” that will be created for an individual from the name submitted on their census form. Names will also be kept for four years rather than being destroyed after 18 months, as is the current practice.

Accurate Picture

Privacy advocates say that, irrespective of names being destroyed, the linkage keys will allow answers to future questions to be linked to census responses, enabling the government to compile a profile of a person.

If people boycott the census, or provide incorrect information, the five-yearly questionnaire may not provide an accurate snapshot of the nation. The census data is used to benchmark the population for figures like unemployment and determining the amount and location of public services required. 

The public’s reluctance to the government holding more personal data reflects concerns about its overall security, said Zareh Ghazarian, an author and lecturer at Monash University’s School of Social Sciences.

“Recent stories of hacking and other breaches of security where people’s details are leaking out are feeding into a more refined sense of the dangers of data collection and data retention among Australians,” Ghazarian said. “Major leaks and the advent of groups like WikiLeaks has really made people aware that the data they give to the government or other parties may at some point be released into the public sphere. This census, and the fact it’s being conducted online, just reinforces those concerns.”

Xenophon plans to contest any fine and turn it into a test case on the validity of the statistics bureau’s request. He will also seek to amend legislation so people can’t be prosecuted for refusing to provide their name.

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