Submission to the Senate Inquiry into the 2016 Census


Update (11 December 2016)

We congratulate the Senate Economics References Committee on an excellent report into the 2016 Census disaster. The committee’s report was made public on the 24th of November. We’re please to note our submission was cited a number of times in the report.

On the impact on data quality if the Census loses the community’s trust:

4.57 The committee heard that the willingness of the community to engage in statistical projects is proportionate to the trust the community has in that organisation. If respondents do not trust that their information is safe they are less likely to honestly participate in the activity. [Footnote: Dr Roger Clarke, Board Member, Australian Privacy Foundation, Committee Hansard, 25 October 2016, p. 57; Online Hate Prevention Institute, Submission 55, p. 1.]

7.4 The committee also heard suggestions that the data that was collected through the census may be less reliable than in the past due to households deliberately withholding or incorrectly supplying information. The Online Hate Prevention Institute proposed that this effect would be more pronounced for specific groups in the community where trust was already low. [Footnote: Online Hate Prevention Institute, Submission 55, p. 9]

On the need for the Census to be funded by tax payers, rather than reliant on the ABS exploiting people’s data to recover costs:

7.4 … The Online Hate Prevention Institute posited that Australians expect the ABS to be funded out of consolidated revenue, not using information collected for statistical purposes to be repurposed for commercial ones.[Footnote: Online Hate Prevention Institute, Submission 55, p. 9]

The report makes a number of recommendations including:

Recommendation 1

4.81 The committee recommends that all future Privacy Impact Assessments relating to the census, are conducted externally with the final report published on the ABS website 12 months in advance of the census to which it relates.

4.82 Following the release of a PIA recommending changes to future censuses, consultation across the Australian community should be undertaken by the ABS with the outcomes clearly documented on the ABS website no less than six months before a future census.

Recommendation 2

4.83 The committee recommends that the ABS update its internal guidelines to make clear that consultation requires active engagement with the non-government and private sector.

The report also commented on the changes to data retention:

4.32 Indeed, the census affects all Australians, and even if the changes themselves were relatively minor—a point not conceded by many—the cumulative privacy impacts are inevitably large.

And on the retention of names and addresses:

4.75 The committee is of the view that overturning the long-standing practice of destroying name and address data collected through the census is a significant change that warranted significantly more public consultation and external scrutiny than it received.

Additional comments and recommendations from some members, which did not make it into the main report, were attached. Senators Nick Xenophon and Stirling Griff have recommended at:

  1. There should be a legislative amendment to the Census and Statistics Act 1905 to make clear that the provision of a person’s name is voluntary.
  2. Prior to any linking of Census data to other administrative data sets or to the adoption and implementation of SLCD, such changes must be brought to the Parliament for its consideration and approval.

Senator Richard Di Natal recommended that:

  1. A new independent Privacy Impact Assessment is performed on the changes to the census within the next 6 months, the outcome of which must determine the acceptability of the changes made to the management of census data after the 2016 census.

The Online Hate Prevention Institute strongly supports these three additional recommendations and we view recommendation 2 from  Senators Nick Xenophon and Stirling Griff as critical to protecting privacy and restoring confidence. 

The original article (21 September 2016)

The Online Hate Prevention Institute has provided a submission to the Senate Inquiry into the 2016 Census. Our concerns are around the use of census data for data matching by the ABS, but also cover a range of other issues.

Data matching between the Census and other sources of data creates a pool of rich data in the hands of the Australian Bureau of Statistics which we believe is not protected by existing laws to the same degree as the data in the Census itself. Additionally, the management of big data involving personal information comes with significant risk. As we have previously written in the Journal First Monday, “The potential damage from inappropriate disclosure of information is sometimes obvious. However, the potential damage of multiple individually benign pieces of information being combined to infer, or a large dataset being analysed to reveal, sensitive information (or information which may later be considered sensitive) is much harder to foresee. A lack of transparency in the way data is analysed and aggregated, combined with a difficulty in predicting which pieces of information may later prove damaging, means that many individuals have little perception of potential adverse effects” of big data analysis.

The ABS has been public about plans to sell “microdata” which they describe as “data in unit record files, which contain detailed information about individuals, businesses and other groups”. They also view their past practices as overly conservative, meaning there is a changing risk appetite at the ABS.

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Introductory letter to the submission

The Online Hate Prevention Institute (OHPI) is Australia’s only Harm Prevention Charity dedicated to the online world. As a charity we have expertise in issues occurring at the nexus of human rights and technology. We have previously led the work on a highly cited paper on the threats of big data and computational social science. Our CEO also serves as a Distinguished Visitor for the IEEE Computer Society, one of the large international professional bodies in the technology field.

We value the Census and the work of the Australian Bureau of Statistics but have particular concerns about the drastic expansion of scope which is enabled through the planned data matching and the steps the facilitate it being taken with the 2016 Census. We believe this radically changes the nature of the Census as a data collection process. This has occurred, and appears set to continue, without sufficient public consultation, information, or oversight. It has occurred without the informed buy in of the public.

We believe that to prevent further erosion of trust in the Census, and in public confidence in government more broadly, there need to be limitations and clarity on the question of data matching relating to the Census data. We recognize that government is matching with data it already holds, but the linkage and aggregation of data creates new information and the process may intentionally or inadvertently override existing protections on people’s personal data, in contradiction of the Australian Privacy Principles.

We believe there are two primary issues at stake. The first is the actual threat of a loss of privacy through theft, negligence, accident, espionage or future change of government policy. The second issue is the threat to the submission of the Census and the quality of Census data as a result of a public loss of trust. The second issue may be exacerbated within culturally and linguistically diverse communities, and particularly in new and emerging communities, where trust in government may start from a lower base than within the general population. Concerns from member of religious minorities, such as the Jewish community who were persecuted with the use of Census data by the Nazis, and the Muslim community who have concerns about surveillance targeting their community, could see the optional question on religion omitted or incorrectly completed. This would negatively impact data quality and decision making with relation to these communities.

The threat of an actual breach, or of a future government changing the rules and using the data in a way which would not be condoned by the public is a concern that should not be discounted. The richer the data becomes, that is the more sources it links, the higher the risk becomes. The level of risk is a matter of opinion, however, the question is whether the Australian community should wear the enhanced risk associated with “big data” created through data matching at all.

We recommend not permitting the Census data to be linked to other data sources. The policy implications, legal safeguards, and privacy protection mechanisms are not currently in place to support this. The Census has provided valuable insight into the community for generations without data matching to other sources and it could continue to do so with high public trust both in the Census and in government if the plan to link data were now abandoned. The ABS could obtain richer data, if it requires it, through other means such as separate surveys where the public are at least aware of what data is collected and ideally where participation is optional. This would be our recommended approach.

If access to linked data cannot be avoided, we would urge that such linking only be permitted against specific databases as named in regulations and only on fields named in the regulations. This would increase public confidence by providing transparency and oversite on what data is being matched and used. We would also recommend that each regulated set of data be accompanied by an impact assessment independent of the ABS, for example, by the Australian Information Commissioner.

The full submission

Submission to the Senate Inquiry into the 2016 Census by the Online Hate Prevention Institute (OHPI)

If you haven’t already done so above, please help us share this briefing to raise awareness of these issues.


You can also support the work we do with a donation (donates made by Australian tax payers are tax deductible). Support by joining our Facebook page and mailing list is also welcome, but our most critical need right now is funding and all donations help.