Tonight is Census night, ABS does terrible job at explaining security

The data is important

CensusNight

Tonight is Census night, when the Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS) asks all Australians to capture a snapshot in time of what Australia looks like. This data has been collected for more than 100 years and the data helps shape decisions and investment in Australia’s education, health, transport and infrastructure.

This year, Census is quite different, with more than 15 million people expected to complete the Census online. Regardless of the method of collection, the data still ends up on ABS servers, but that hasn’t stopped widespread privacy concerns from being raised.

For the data to be useful, it makes sense we collect it from everywhere, which means the ABS makes this mandatory. This avoids the data being skewed to those geographically or politically motivated to complete the information.

By far the largest contention is around the requirement to supply the names and addresses of people. Your name is certainly not a secret, but understandably, some people are concerned about their name being tied to their physical location at the time of completion, which for most people will be their home address. In terms of the name, there’s no way to ensure everyone completes the Census without capturing people’s names. This leaves the address.

Knowing the state and even the postcode could probably have provided the ABS with the necessary correlations between circumstance and location without having users provide their actual home address.

The Minister responsible, @M_McCormackMP says the ABS create a linkage key for each person which is derived from a combination of your name and address which enables them to track people over a number of Census. Its not hard to imagine circumstances where understanding interstate residential migration of a period of time, however that too could be derived from postcode changes.

Perhaps what politicians underestimated was the level of community nervousness around data privacy and they’ve done a poor job at explaining the security measures implemented to ensure data is captured and stored securely and that it would and could never be breached. Almost on a daily basis we hear of Companies or Government departments experiencing data breaches and its easy for consumers to assume the ABS risk is essentially the same.

The ABS has experienced a number of breaches in recent times, however the Census data has never been breached. What needs to be explained is why. A serious, deep-technical explanation of the security both physical and electronic should have been provided to calm nerves. The ABS also failed to detail at what point data is anonymised and who/when/how this is accessed.

Here’s an example of the concern, while not correct in terms the data being for sale, it is an example of people correlating one system being hacked, with the ability for any system to be compromised. While no system is foolproof, with the right measures in place, data can be secured and that’s what hasn’t been explained by the ABS.

Many people struggle to see the benefit of this massive data collection, but there’s no doubt Government data can be amazingly powerful and beneficial to Australians. http://data.gov.au is site that provides annonymised government datasets to developers who can build applications on top of the data for easy consumption. Need to find a public toilet? Need to find what the current radio station frequencies are available in your location? There’s probably an app that exists that leverages this data. There’s 9,400 datasets available that covers a incredible national resource that ranges from corporate tax to bushfire data and with more data, the Government and Businesses can make better decisions about products and services.

Politicians and ABS officials have often referred to the fact consumers often provide far more than this level of detail to social networks, loyalty programs and credit card companies. While this is true for many, the seriously privacy concerned often don’t use their real names where possible and importantly, that data is volunteered, not mandatory.

The whole situation hasn’t been helped by politicians like Nick Xenophon and Jackie Lambie publicly adding to the outrage and have said they won’t complete the Census with their name and address. Online there is no option to submit without doing so.

Personally I know VicRoads has my name and address, I know the AEC has those details and expect the Government can call on that data if needed. I have completed the Census online and had no problems with the data collection. I do think the data is incredibly important, however the way in which the data is collected could have been done very differently.

Many households already have secure online relationships with MyGov for Centrelink, submitting taxes and eHealth records, so the Census seems like a better fit for collecting the data securely.

Despite a fairly lengthy lead time, there’s plenty of reports that people have not received their code in the mail to submit online, or some who never requested a paper Census, having one turn up in the mailbox. There’s some that haven’t received either and ABS were advising people who fall into that category to call, however there’s so many people with issues or concerns that phone lines have been overwhelmed. With the risk of being fined for each day the Census remains incomplete, concerns are high, however the Q&A section says there is some leniency.

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Key dates Census key dates:

  • August 1, 2016 Delivery of instruction letters and forms begins
  • August 9, 2016 Census night
  • August 26, 2016 Census Field Officers begin visits
  • April 2017 The first results from the 2016 Census released.

For more information, head over to https://census.abs.gov.au

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