Danger of census facts leaking, Liberty Victoria warns

Information from next month’s census will be a “honeypot” for hackers, Liberty Victoria warned today.

“The safest way to keep data secure is not to retain it at all,” the human rights group said. “Information security can no longer be guaranteed.”

There are increasingly frequent instances of serious data breaches of personal information held by both government[i] and business.

Shortly before Christmas last year, the Australian Bureau of Statistics announced it will retain the names and addresses collected in the 2016 Census.  “This is a significant change made with little meaningful consultation,” said Liberty[ii]. “Previously, names and addresses were not retained after the Census was complete, except for a five per cent sample group.”

The ABS says it is retaining names and addresses “to provide a richer and dynamic statistical picture … through the combination of Census data with other survey and administrative data.”[iii]

 It said:

  • Census data and education data can provide insight into employment through education.
  • Census data and health data can help improve Australia’s understanding and support of people who require mental health services.

The ABS also highlights that the retention of names and addresses is a cost saving measure.[iv]

This will also be the first Census where more than two thirds of Australians are expected to complete the Census online. The ABS has explained that:

  • New delivery and collection procedures will make it easier to complete the Census online. In the lead up to 9 August, households will receive a letter from the ABS, addressed “To the Resident”, including a unique login and instructions on how to complete the Census online. 
  • Paper forms can be requested where needed and must be completed and returned in the reply paid envelope  without delay. [v]

But while the ABS seeks to assure the public that it is committed to the protection and confidentiality of everyone who completes the census the Australian Privacy Foundation and other privacy advocates identified risks from the retention of names and addresses.

They include:

  • A change in the nature of the census from an anonymous snapshot to an identified record.
  • The data provided to the census is to be linked by the ABS with data about people from other sources, building a far more detailed picture .
  • Data without identification, as well as aggregated statistical data, will be  available to researchers.  David Vaile, UNSW's Cyberspace Law and Policy Community warns: “No mechanism of de-identification gives protection that doesn't decline over time[vi]."

Liberty says the data may be used in a different way in the future. “Many government agencies will be interested in getting access to the same data as researchers[vii]. Do we trust future governments that could decide, at any time, to permit use of this data for other purposes?”



[i] Immigration breached Privacy Act with data leak: http://www.itnews.com.au/news/immigration-breached-privacy-act-with-data-leak-397765

[ii] Lost our census: why the biggest hit to privacy this year is all about you: http://www.cnet.com/au/news/lost-our-census-why-the-biggest-hit-to-privacy-this-year-is-all-about-you/#!

[iii] ABS response to Privacy Impact Assessment: http://www.abs.gov.au/websitedbs/censushome.nsf/home/CO-82?opendocument&navpos=620

[iv] Retention of names and addresses collected in the 2016 Census of Population and Housing: http://www.abs.gov.au/websitedbs/D3310114.nsf/home/Retention+of+names+and+addresses+collected

[v] ABS Census Information: http://www.abs.gov.au/websitedbs/censushome.nsf/home/2016

[vi] Lost our census: why the biggest hit to privacy this year is all about you: http://www.cnet.com/au/news/lost-our-census-why-the-biggest-hit-to-privacy-this-year-is-all-about-you/#!

[vii] See further: Australian Privacy Foundation slams ‘Orwellian’ census data retention  https://delimiter.com.au/2016/04/14/australian-privacy-foundation-slams-orwellian-census-data-retention/