Census: Government rejects additional privacy safeguards

No parliamentary sign-off on data linking, government says

The government has rejected recommendations from Greens and Nick Xenophon Team (NXT) senators that would potentially impose additional restrictions on the use of data gathered by the Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS) during the Census.

Last year’s Census was subject to heightened scrutiny after the Australian Bureau of Statistics pulled the eCensus website offline following a series of denial of service attacks. That decision and the security preparations leading up to the Census were investigated by a Senate committee and a government-commissioned review.

In the aftermath, the government announced it had reached a confidential settlement with IBM, which was the lead contractor for the online portion of the Census.

However, the events of Census night were not the only source of controversy for the ABS. A move by the bureau to retain for an extended period the names and addresses collected as part of the statistics-gathering process also alarmed privacy advocates.

The ABS indicated it was keen to explore opportunities to potentially match Census data to other datasets, delivering richer statistical insights.

“The decision by the ABS to retain data for four years will enable the production of a more dynamic and comprehensive statistical data set to better inform policy settings and provide tailored services for communities from which all Australians are set to benefit,” small business minister Michael McCormack argued in the lead-up to the Census.

“After the data collection and processing is complete, the ABS will remove names and addresses from personal and household information and store them separately and made anonymous. It is important to note people’s names will never be ‘joined up’ or attached to Census or any other data set.”

The government’s attempt to assure people of safeguards attached to the process met with a hostile reception from civil liberties advocacy groups, and the decision by the ABS to reiterate the potential for fines or prosecution for not participating in the Census sparked additional criticism of the bureau.

Independent, Greens and NXT senators pledged they would engage in a form of civil disobedience and not enter their names in the Census.

The government announced yesterday that it would support many of the recommendations made by the Senate inquiry into the Census, noting that a number of them align with the recommendations of the separate investigation conducted by the Prime Minister’s Special Advisor on Cyber Security, Alastair MacGibbon.

However, the government rejected a recommendation by NXT senators Nick Xenophon and Stirling Griff that the Census and Statistics Act 1905 be amended to make clear that the provision of a person’s name is voluntary. The government argued that collection of a person’s name is “necessary for a high quality Census” and that to not do so would impede the ABS’s ability to produce accurate statistics.

Similarly the government rejected a recommendation by the NXT duo that parliamentary approval be sought before linking Census data sets to other data sets.

The government said that existing legislation provides strong protections for data gathered during the Census, and that any Census information cannot be used for compliance or service delivery purposes.

“Identifiable information cannot be shared or provided to any government department or organisation, including the courts,” the government said in its response. Decisions around collecting, processing, storing and presentation data are the domain of the Australian Statistician, the response states.

The government also rejected a recommendation by Greens Senator Richard Di Natale that a Privacy Impact Assessment be conducted on the changes to the Census within six months of the inquiry’s report. The outcome of that process should determine the acceptability of the changes made to the handling of Census data in the wake of the 2016 process, the senator recommended.

The ABS has “already been subject to considerable external scrutiny about the management of personal information from the 2016 Census,” the government said in its response.

“The ABS has subsequently made a number of modifications to he initial proposal and policies and practices to take into account community concerns and the recommendations of external reviews.

“In April 2016 the ABS responded to community concerns by committing to the destruction of names and addresses from the 2016 Census no later than August 2020. Names and addresses will be deleted earlier this there is no longer any community benefit derived from their retention. This assessment will be made annually.”

Following the Senate inquiry and the MacGibbon Review, the ABS is implementing “a number of changes to policy and procedural frameworks which will ensure future significant changes to personal information handling practices will be subject to an independent Privacy Impact Assessment and broad consultation,” the government said.

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