Skip to content

Fright night: Australia’s creepy census threatens privacy and our civil liberties

9th August 2016

Tonight’s Census 2016 has been described as ‘creepy’ by QUT privacy expert Professor Matthew Rimmer because ‘it invades every corner of our lives and fails to provide anonymity - a basic principle of privacy’.

“The census rides roughshod over our anonymity, privacy and security without our informed consent or voluntary participation,” said Professor Rimmer, who is Professor of Intellectual Property and Innovation at QUT’s Faculty of Law.

“I am appalled by this creepy census which highlights the need for an urgent update of our privacy laws.

“The Australian Bureau of Statistics has clearly lost the public’s trust and confidence over the Census 2016.

“Problems with the census’ privacy issues are compounded in an age of big data, cloud computing and hacking which point to an even greater need for privacy protection in Australia.

“We need a statutory cause of action for serious invasions of privacy, as recommended by the Australian Law Reform Commission and we need mandatory disclosure of data breaches.

“As a researcher, I am disturbed by the Australian Bureau of Statistics’ approach because ethical research involves confidentiality, informed consent, voluntary participation, and no threat of compulsion or fines.

“In the delivery of tonight’s census we see each one of these principles flouted.”

QUT’s Dr Monique Mann, from the School of Justice, said that in an era of big data, algorithmic profiling and data matching, advocating for the collection of ‘anonymous’ census data was not a panacea for privacy concerns.

“We need to consider this in the context of the volume and nature of information that is already routinely collected by state and non-state agencies with or without individual knowledge or consent,” Dr Mann said.

“Individuals can be personally identified from a small number of data points, irrespective of whether they provide their names. There are broader issues to be debated about the collection, storage, sharing and use of personal information."

It was naïve to think census data would not be compromised in some way in the future, said QUT School of Justice senior lecturer Dr Cassandra Cross, an expert in identity theft and fraud.

“It is wrong of government to offer an iron-clad promise that it will be kept safe,” Dr Cross said.

“Many governments here and overseas have experienced data breaches and the ABS is not immune to any type of compromise, external or internal.

“Census data is a collection of highly personal and sensitive facts which is an attractive target for potential offenders.

“There has been no consideration of what would happen were a data breach to occur and the potential impact that could have.

“Identity theft is one of the most significant problems today, and can have devastating impacts. To dismiss privacy and security concerns with inaccurate comparisons to the use of other social media platforms ignores the inherent differences in these - that of voluntary participation.

“The best way to prevent a data breach is to neither enable its retention nor its linking to other data sets in the first place,” Dr Cross said.

Professor Rimmer said there had been longstanding legal issues with the Australian census.

“As far back as 1979 law reformer and jurist, ‘the great dissenter’ Michael Kirby flagged issues with privacy, consent and compulsion with the Australian census.

“And, Democrat Senator Natasha Stott Despoja repeatedly raised concerns about the punitive use of threats and fines by the Australian Bureau of Statistics.”

Professor Rimmer said the Australian Bureau of Statistics had rushed a risible “low-risk” privacy impact assessment through before Christmas without proper public consultation.

“Unfortunately, the Australian Bureau of Statistics' approach fails to properly respect ethical standards and so we need to properly respect the rights and liberties of research participants, especially those in high-risk and vulnerable communities.

“I welcome the legal and political challenge to the Australian Bureau of Statistics on privacy grounds by Senators Nick Xenophon, Sarah Hanson-Young, Scott Ludlam, Jacqui Lambie, Janet Rice, Lee Rhiannon, and Larissa Waters.

“These politicians have shown real leadership in defending the privacy, freedom, and civil liberties of Australian citizens.”

Media contact: Niki Widdowson, QUT media, 07 3138 2999 or n.widdowson@qut.edu.au

After hours: Rose Trapnell, 0407 585 901 or media@qut.edu.au

 

Find more QUT news on

Media enquiries

For all media enquiries contact the QUT Media Team

+61 73138 2361

Sign up to the QUT News and Events Wrap