#CensusFail report: ABS rudderless in a sea of private data

In August 2016, the Australian Bureau of Statistics attempted to run the 2016 Census. The Census was plagued by privacy issues and technical mishaps, in what is potentially Australia’s biggest privacy blunder of the year. For the first time since the Census began, the ABS had decided to not only take down your name and address, but also store these details and link them together with other data sets. The Pirate Party would love to explain which data sets now are intrinsically linked to your information, but it turns out that not even the ABS has the answer to this question.

On Thursday 24 November 2016, the Senate Economics References Committee delivered its report on the 2016 Census[1]. The report shows that the ABS ignored the results of a privacy assessment conducted by an external reviewer in 2005, an assessment which showed that retaining names and addresses had serious privacy implications. Instead, they decided to run their own internal privacy assessment in 2015, which surprisingly came to the complete opposite decision. The ABS then concluded on the basis of this self-run privacy assessment, along with a whole three submissions from the public (all of which expressed negative doubts about the retention of names), that retaining names was definitely a good idea.

The 2016 Census report shows that the ABS also has an abysmal understanding of its own plans for your data, let alone what anyone else might do with the data. The ABS admits that it has not yet determined the statistical linkage keys that would be used to link your personal data to other data sets. Not only have they not determined this, they offered the public no significant reasons for trusting the ABS beyond just saying “trust us” and “if someone gets caught, the law will get them”. The Pirate Party thinks this is about as useful as saying that burglar alarms are not needed as “if the burglar gets caught, the law will get them”.

The report does offer many recommendations, with which the Pirate Party generally agrees. However, the Pirate Party does not think these go far enough to fix the mistakes. The Pirate Party stands by its recommendation made in its submission to the Senate committee that the provision of names should be optional to future censuses. The Pirate Party is glad that Senators Nick Xenophon and Stirling Griff both agree with this recommendation in their additional comments in the report. The Pirate Party also considers the commission of a new, external, and independent privacy impact assessment of the changes to future censuses to be vital. Any use, sharing, extraction or linkage of data gathered from the 2016 Census should be halted until such a privacy impact assessment is completed, and said assessment is approved.

[1] http://www.aph.gov.au/Parliamentary_Business/Committees/Senate/Economics/2016Census/~/media/Committees/economics_ctte/2016Census/report.pdf