Census 2016: Your guide to privacy and completing the survey (or not)

The Census is upon us and, short of travelling to the moon, you're about to be counted in Australia's biggest survey. But with "serious privacy concerns" being raised, what are your options?

Claire Reilly Former Principal Video Producer
Claire Reilly was a video host, journalist and producer covering all things space, futurism, science and culture. Whether she's covering breaking news, explaining complex science topics or exploring the weirder sides of tech culture, Claire gets to the heart of why technology matters to everyone. She's been a regular commentator on broadcast news, and in her spare time, she's a cabaret enthusiast, Simpsons aficionado and closet country music lover. She originally hails from Sydney but now calls San Francisco home.
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Claire Reilly
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Census night is August 9, and if you're having doubts about what to do for the nation's biggest statistical survey, you're not alone.

The Australian Bureau of Statistics quietly announced late last year that this year's Census would match name and address to your other responses, and names would be retained for an extended period of four years.

There was little consultation on the issue at the time, but dissent has been growing.

Independent Senator Nick Xenophon has described the Census as a "debacle," saying there are "serious privacy concerns" to be addressed.

Despite staying quiet previously, NSW Privacy Commissioner Elizabeth Coombs has now said "it's hard not to be concerned about the proposed changes," adding that there are a range of risks around such a valuable data source.

One former ABS staffer Ross Hamilton has said the Bureau is not as trustworthy as many think, and that promises to keep information temporarily are misleading. If data is kept for four years, and the census is held every five years, the Census effectively only overwrites data, rather than destroying it.

"To claim the retention of the 2016 data as only temporary is in fact a load of rubbish as it would have become continuing, updated data-sets," Hamilton told Fairfax.

Enlarge Image

The ABS publicly releases a great deal of general population data, including in its interactive Spotlight app.

ABS screenshot by Claire Reilly/CNET

So what do you do come August 9?

First up, check out our explainer on what this year's Census changes mean for privacy.

If you are across the changes and you're unsure about what to do, privacy organisations like Electronic Frontiers Australia (EFA) have come out of the woodwork with advice for everyone from conscientious objectors down to tinfoil-hat privacy narcs (it's a rich spectrum).

So what are your options? And what's the legality of saying no to the statisticians?

Nothing but the truth

Open your letter, get your unique code and fill in the Census online. The ABS defends its security record and rated the risk of a hack, deliberate leak or unintentional data breach as "very low" in its privacy impact assessment [PDF]. And thanks to Census data, we know that 24 million other Aussies are in the same boat as you!

You can even elect to be part of the Census Time Capsule, meaning your data will be released after 99 years for "research purposes." Think of the exciting genealogical links your descendants could make a century from now!

The paper form

A retro option for privacy advocates, you can call the ABS on 1300 820 275 to request a paper form. EFA says paper allows you to skip questions (unlike the the online form) or lets you return a blank form. But be aware that, if you're identified by the ABS as a deliberate time-waster, that's when they're likely to chase you or fine you.

Spend the night elsewhere

Ain't no party like a Census party, cause a Census party is...none of your business! You can still tell the truth on Census night without being in your home at the same time, because answers are recorded based on the premises, not the person. That might involve staying at a friend's place (and being listed as a guest there) or going camping. EFA calls this the "gone fishin'" approach.

If you're staying in a hotel or caravan park, the ABS says that venue will still provide you with a form.

Don't respond

There's a certain dignity in maintaining privacy, and you'll feel it when you're sitting on the floor of your house with the lights off on Census night. If you're "away from home" (truthfully or otherwise) on Census night and you haven't told the ABS, they will send a Census officer to chase you up after the fact. If you decide you never want to answer the Census, EFA warns that Census officers "are paid to chase, chase, and chase again."

"Eventually they may run out of time, although they have the option to argue to the magistrate that your continual busyness constitutes a refusal to answer," EFA said.

But you won't be alone. Former ABS public servant Ross Hamilton told Fairfax that unless the ABS could deal with privacy concerns, he could not "in good conscience" participate in the Census.

"I am aware of the potential consequences and frankly would love the opportunity to set out these facts before a magistrate," he said.

Hello, my name is Mr. Snrub...Yes, that will do

You can lie on the Census form. It's important to remember that this is an offence, and you could be prosecuted through the courts. Electronic Frontiers Australia scales back its advice on this point, suggesting made-up responses to questions "that are of greatest concern to you."

"The lies need to be subtle enough that the ABS believes them, or considers them too difficult to prove to be lies. On the other hand, because ABS is handling 5 to 10 million forms, it may be impractical for them to check even for silly answers let alone for plausible but incorrect answers."

That won't stop them coming after you, and if you believe in the power of data (you should, stats are great!) then this is a letdown. If you cycle to work, don't you want more money for cycleways? Then don't tell them you catch the monorail!

What are your plans for Census night? Let us know in the comments below.