Government has ‘botched’ Census explanation: Labor

Privacy advocates have expressed alarm over changes to the Census

The government “has botched explaining changes to the upcoming Census, leading to significant community confusion and concern,” argues a statement issued this morning by shadow assistant treasurer Andrew Leigh.

The statement from Leigh was in response to a privacy concerns over the Australian Bureau of Statistics’ decision to retain names and addresses collected in the 2016 Census for four years.

However Leigh added that Labor “urges all Australians to complete their Census forms accurately so that the Government’s failings do not mar our largest national information-gathering exercise”.

“The ABS has always asked people to provide their names over the last century,” Australian Statistician David Kalisch said this morning during an interview on ABC News 24.

“This is the 17th Census that we've asked people tool provide their names. In the last censuses, the ABS has kept names for about 18 months while we've done the census processing. This time we're keeping it for about four years and that’s to improve the quality of our national statistics.”

The ABS “never has and never will release someone's personal information” and has “an unblemished record over 110 years with the Census information,” the ABS head said. The agency is required by legislation to keep Census information secure, he added.

However, Kalisch acknowledged there is “always a chance” that the agency’s IT systems could be hacked. He said the ABS has worked with the Australian Signals Directorate and other federal agencies “to make sure that our systems are as secure as they can be”.

The changes to the Census have alarmed privacy advocates. An Electronic Frontiers Australia guide to the Census argues that the changes by the ABS are a “serious breach of trust”.

“There is a real risk of this information being re-identified or the access to this information being increased in the future. In addition, data leaks continue to occur despite the best efforts of governments and organisations. The safest way to avoid risk is to destroy the names and addresses immediately,” the guide argues.

The Guardian revealed last week that the ABS had suffered 14 data breaches since 2013, although none of them related to Census data.

“There are extremely robust safeguards in place to protect the privacy and confidentiality of the information collected in the Census, including names and addresses,” a statement issued by Kalisch on 22 July said.

“After data collection and processing, the ABS removes names and addresses from other personal and household information, stores them securely and separately from one another, and other Census information. They will never be recombined. This is a new capability for the ABS, and a new security feature that protects the community, introduced over the past decade.

“The ABS never has and never will release identifiable Census data. This is set out not only in our legislation, but is ingrained in our organisational culture, just as filling in the Census is ingrained in our national culture.”

The Census will be conducted on 9 August.

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