Census 2016: How government statisticians tipped the scales of trust

Commentary: It's the way the Bureau of Statistics has responded to Australia's concerns that has caused the most damage to this year's Census.

Seamus Byrne Editor, Australia & Asia
Seamus Byrne is CNET's Editor for Australia and Asia. At other times he'll be found messing with apps, watching TV, building LEGO, and rolling dice. Preferably all at the same time.
Seamus Byrne
4 min read
Peter Bates/Getty

Tonight's the night. The 2016 Census. A Census to be remembered for its awful mix of data retention fears and bureaucratic entitlement.

Some people hate the Census on pure principle. I've typically enjoyed the Census experience, as a kid, through share houses and now with a family of my own. So to have watched the Australian Bureau of Statistics give itself extended powers to retain personal information and then fail miserably to explain why it was important to do so has been a serious disappointment.

By now you probably know the reasons behind the #Censusfail outcry. For the first time, names and addresses will be retained with the rest of a household's Census responses for four years. Privacy, security and Big Brother fears have simmered slowly for months and boiled over quickly in recent weeks.

I don't particularly fear a future hacking scandal. Though I think the ABS response to security concerns has been appalling. "Trust us" has been the simple response. "We've never been hacked" was the rag waved before the bull. A ship's claims of being unsinkable spring to mind.

Whether you're going to be targeted by a future hack or not, best practice on security should always apply. All this attention has led to some pointing out the Census website is sending people passwords in clear text and it is not properly using secure web protocols for the online Census forms. If we're being asked to trust you, repay that faith by treating our data as the gift that it is -- from point of capture to point of storage.

When we first covered Census privacy concerns back in May the official responses we received were the kinds of explanations that would play well in a room full of statisticians. "Unleash the power" of the Census by retaining names and addresses. Oh, what useful and valuable products will be created!

No one seemed to understand the need to actually explain why the changes were important to the Australian people. They believe there is no need. That concerns are inherently misguided and that any extension of personally identifiable data collection requires no justification. Yet in this post-Snowden world, people care most about their privacy when it comes to government data collection.

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Senator Nick Xenophon publicly stated that he'd be refraining from putting his name on the 2016 Census form.

Darrian Traynor/Getty Images

They still couldn't care less about Facebook, Google and friends. And some have suggested our happiness to give so much data to these companies shows no one should complain about the Census. But people see direct benefit from giving their data away to those companies. They're not being shown the direct value in giving it away to the ABS.

Senator Nick Xenophon spoke to this argument on television this morning. "There is a big difference between Facebook and the Census. Firstly, Facebook is voluntary. You choose to be on Facebook and choose to give your information. Facebook doesn't fine you $180 a day until you comply for providing your details. Comparing Facebook to the Census is like the difference between taxation and charity."

The trouble keeps coming back to an assumed right to collect our data. That collection is the natural order. That, with a century of Census under the belt, the Australian people always have and always will be happy and willing to give personal information to the Government. That any opposition or concern is trifling and unworthy of a genuine response. Concerns do not require alleviation.

When responding to privacy concerns and the possibility of refusals to participate, Census Program Manager Duncan Young told us: "It's unfortunate that their data...isn't going to help create an accurate picture of the country," he said. "I see [non-participation] as a very low risk because the Australian people will trust the Census and see its value."

The Census is a privilege and it is based on a delicate balance of trust that needs to be respected and maintained by the ABS. To dismiss concerns with platitudes and assume trust is something you inherently possess is the critical failure of this entire process.

If the public had been offered more specific insights into how the extra personal data benefits society. Or offered a better sense of how much appreciation the ABS has for the gift of our personal details. More respectful answers to concerns from real people would have put many concerns to rest.

Instead, the poor response has led to politicians of various stripes stating they will not be giving their names in response to this year's Census. That's quite an encouragement for many Australians to do the same.

The scales of trust are swinging in the breeze. However this Census plays out, a cloud will hang over the quality of the 2016 Census data collected tonight. Will the retention of names and addresses have been worth it?