There has been a lot of concern and controversy over the August 9 census. Many people are alarmed and rightly so. The Australian Government has made steady incursions into peoples privacy and the decision to collect names and addresses and then store this information for 4 years (rather than 18 months) along with other census information is the latest attempt.There was no public consultation about this decision (the ABS had earlier raised the possibility of long-term storage twice before but were advised against it). And the case for long-term data retention has not been put to the public. Names have always been collected, but then the forms were de identified and names destroyed.How the data will be managed now is anyone’s guess. The method of collecting information has changed as well. Even though people have been able to fill out the census online since 2006, this is the first time the ABS is moving to a digital-only method of data collection. Over the last month, ABS sent out letters with codes to enter online which would then lead to the census form. This move was ill advised for many reasons. Firstly, many rural areas (remote areas will get paper copies) are not well covered by telecommunication networks and in places where there is high coverage, there have also been network outages. Telstra has recently had many problems with national outages meaning companies and healthcare organisations have been unable to operate at normal levels. Australia’s telecommunication networks are not mature or sophisticated enough to cope with a digital-only national census. Secondly, this move is discriminatory. Many people in our community cannot afford to own computers let alone afford high internet charges. Money for food, housing and clothing is more important. Public libraries may not have the resources to cope with this population..Many older Australians do not desire to be digital citizens and don’t know how to operate the equipment from choice. Thirdly, sending personal information over telecommunication networks is risky and highly liable to being stolen (even an IT security expert has had his PayPal account hacked). And storing sensitive information electronically for any period of time makes it accessible for longer and thus open to legitimate and illegitimate use.
So what should you do? Don’t boycott the census.Obtain a paper form (all sensitive information should travel via paper). Do not fill in your real name and address but provide correct information for all other questions. That way, agencies get correct information for planning purposes and your privacy is mostly secure. My mother is even removing identifying codes from the paper form.