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People Are Going Absolutely Nuts About The Census

What's going on behind #CensusFail?

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Once every five years, the government asks you to fill out the census with all your personal details so it can get a snapshot of what Australia is really like.

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This year's census is being held next Tuesday 9 August. Everyone in Australia on that night will be required to go online, or use a pre-ordered paper form, and fill in their personal information.

But people are completely losing it about this year's census, with an online movement springing up in the last few months called #CensusFail.

Now, there are some very good reasons for the concern. Let's start at the top:

Late last year the government agency that runs the census, the Australian Bureau of Statistics, announced that in this year's census, for the first time, they would be storing people's names and addresses for up to four years.

In the past, the ABS would take all the data (gender, religion, education etc) and junk the names and addresses within 18 months.

The ABS now wants to keep them. The names and the addresses will be split and given a randomised identification figure (called a "statistical linkage key"), which will be kept apart from the rest of the data.

But a former statistician for the ABS, Bill McLennan, sounded the alarm on the name and address retention, writing "this, without doubt, is the most significant invasion of privacy ever perpetrated on Australians by the ABS".

The fact that names and addresses are being retained (albeit as digital codes) has prompted some prominent people to call for a boycott.

I want to emphasise how saddened I am, as a researcher & someone concerned about the public good, to feel compelled to protest census.

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It's being likened to an act of "civil disobedience" by one senator.

remarkable call for census civil disobedience if the ABS doesn't see reason: https://t.co/6phe2Skj67 #auspol

But demographers are warning people to cool their jets, arguing that keeping this randomised identification information will allow the ABS to provide more accurate data.

"Take for instance indigenous life expectancy figures," said Dr Liz Allen, a demographer at Australian National University.

She told BuzzFeed News: "When indigenous people die, we need a third party to identify whether they were indigenous. The new census allows checks against what the individual has actually reported. It's much more accurate."

Another concern is that this year, not everyone is being sent paper forms to be filled out. Instead, people will be sent these very inconspicuous letters, which contain a login to fill out the census online.

This should not have to happen. #CensusFail

By next Tuesday, Aussies are required to have entered in all their personal information to a government website.

Liam Pomfret from the Australian Privacy Foundation said the ABS was being "naive" if it didn't think this was a cybersecurity risk.

"It strikes me as hopelessly naive that ABS considers the possibility of unauthorised access, hacking, and/or function creep as all being 'very low' risks, when they're in the process of creating such a detailed picture of Australian citizens."

The Guardian reported last week that the ABS has had 14 security breaches of its data since 2013. Importantly, none were related to the census.

The idea of "function creep" is also one cited by those rallying around the #CensusFail hashtag on Twitter. The theory suggests that while the ABS or the government might not have dodgy intentions for the information now, well, what if things change?

Please advise. Should I fill out my religion accurately on my census form & then forever fear what happened to my grandparents? #CensusFail

Allen said it would require a change in legislation for other government agencies to track citizens using the data: "No court and no prime minister can be exposed to this data in a readable format. They are what's called 'de-identified aggregates'."

Yep can't ever imagine a future government doing anything nefarious with a database of every Muslim in Australia.

If you do want to ~boycott~ the census, you risk a fine of $180 per day. Deliberately entering the wrong information can also result in an $1800 fine.

Some privacy advocates are suggesting that if people are seriously concerned, they should order a paper census form from the ABS.

"I certainly won't be putting down my easily identifiable name, and I will be using something called a 'non-photo blue' pen which is known to not normally be picked up by scanners," said Liam Pomfret.

Meanwhile, for those who fill out everything as told, should be assured by the ABS' claim that their data is "always safe and secure with us".

@rodneycruise We take privacy very seriously, your data is always safe and secure with us. For more info, check out https://t.co/S6uuyUxfHQ.

Mark Di Stefano is a Media and Politics Reporter for BuzzFeed News and is based in London.

Contact Mark Di Stefano at mark.distefano@buzzfeed.com.

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