Tonight's Australian census is starting to look like a train wreck

Get not-so-smart… Photo: Getty Images.

South Australian independent senator Nick Xenophon is leading a revolt against Australians being forced to add their name and address to tonight’s census amid growing concerns about privacy.

The once highly respected five-year national survey by the Australian Bureau of Statistics is facing a crisis amid a growing backlash that looks set to spark a civil disobedience campaign today when people are due to fill it out online.

Xenophon, whose party now has three members on the senate crossbenches, said he will not provide his name on the census.

“I do so in full knowledge that I may face prosecution under the Census and Statistics Act of 1905, and that currently involves a fine of $180 per day that is cumulative for every day of non-compliance,” he said.

Xenophon cites a range of privacy concerns saying: “The ABS has failed to make a compelling case why names must be provided, and stored for four years, and unlike any other census in this nation’s history since that first census on the 2nd of April 1911, all names will be turned into a code that ultimately can be used to identify you.”

There’s growing concern that the statistician is looking to monetise the data with third parties.

Former ABS boss Bill McLennan released a discussion paper for the Australian Privacy Foundation calling the 2016 census “the most significant invasion of privacy ever perpetrated on Australians by the ABS”.

With the census moving online for the first time, householders are being sent the details, including the online code needed for access, via mail in letters to “the Householder”. And it appears people are mistaking these for junk mail.

NSW privacy commissioner Elizabeth Coombs also weighed in, telling The Daily Telegraph that the census carried “a range of risks and it’s not just the risk of misuse”.

“Coombs warned people may lie on their census forms due to a fear their data may be misused,” Xenophon said. “Rather than being a snapshot of the nation, this census will now morph into a mobile CCTV that follows every Australian.”

The senator said the Turnbull government “has either been wilfully clueless or recklessly indifferent to the risk this census poses to our privacy”.

There’s growing political resistance to the census demanding names with Tasmanian independent MP Andrew Wilkie called it a “shambles” last week.

“I have been shocked by the number of people who have approached me and my office with all sorts of concerns about the national census,” he said. “There is also a broad feeling of confusion in the community.”

“Despite the collection of names in previous censuses the logic for this has not been communicated to the public, if indeed there is any logic at all. Nor has any explanation been given for why the ABS holding this information for much longer than normal is warranted,” Wilkie said.

The confusion has been compounded by the fact that the ABS appeared ill-prepared for the level of public enquiries the shift to online has generated.

Some people attempting to contact the ABS have been told the organisation was “too busy” to deal with the enquiries, while others have faced lengthy delays in getting through.

“A big problem is the difficulty and cost being experienced by many people attempting to contact the Australian Bureau of Statistics by phone,” Nick Xenophon said.

Fear that people will be fined $180 a day for not filling out the census has added to concerns. Households have until September 23 to complete it.

The Greens want the fines scrapped for people who don’t include their name and address. The government says less than 100 people were fined in 2011 and it’s only a last resort.

Labor’s Andrew Leigh said people should fill out the form tomorrow.

“Census results help shape the allocation of funds, and their accuracy is at the heart of good research and policy,” he said.

The relevant minister, small business minister and Nationals MP Michael McCormack, labelled any privacy concerns “much ado about nothing”.

Anna Johnston, director of Salinger Privacy, and a former deputy privacy commissioner of NSW, says she won’t be filling out the form “until the ABS reverses its decision to match census data about individuals with other datasets about individuals”.

“The census should be a national snapshot, not a tool for detailed data-linking on every individual,” she says

But University of Sydney Professor of health statistics Richard Madden says the data-linking provides an important benefit.

“The linking up of data sets provides reliable and timely information for the community and government, describing Australians’ social and economic situation. Using existing data means the ABS can run less separate surveys. That saves the government money and means that response load on the public is reduced,” he said.

“It also uses names to link up census data, inside ABS, with other data it holds. Many government agencies give data to the ABS, but the ABS never gives identifiable data to another body, public or private.”

And his colleague, associate professor Philip Seltsikas from the school of business says the ABS can be trusted to protect the data.

“The Australian Bureau of Statistics appears to have all the correct and necessary security and privacy precautions in place to ensure the protection of sensitive data,” he said.

The ABS says it “will destroy names and addresses when there is no longer any community benefit to their retention or four years after collection”.

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