Australian census security concerns spark calls for boycott

FILE PHOTO, 08 August 2006. © William West
Politicians and privacy advocates are boycotting the Australian census, citing concerns over the way data is collected and retained. One senator said the survey is morphing into a “mobile CCTV,” rather than a snapshot of the country's population.

For the first time in the 105-year history of the country's census, the Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS) is asking citizens to fill in specific details about themselves online, by answering a series of 61 questions.

Those details – including citizens’ names – will be kept in a database for four years. In the past, fewer details were required from Australian citizens, and information was only retained for 18 months.

Senator Nick Xenophon, an independent politician, has lashed out against the new census, saying: “Rather than being a snapshot of the nation, this census will now morph into a mobile CCTV that follows every Australian.”

"The ABS has failed to make a compelling case why names must be provided, and stored for four years,” he said in a statement.

Xenophon isn't alone in his criticism – he has support from across the left, centrist, and right-wing minor parties elected to parliament in the recent general election.

Even Australia's former chief statistician, Bill McClennan, called the retention of names “the most significant invasion of privacy ever perpetrated on Australians by the ABS,” Reuters reported.

Those who refuse to take part in the census – which is held once every five years in Australia – will be fined AU$180 (US$137) per day until they fill in the form. People found to have provided false or misleading information face a penalty of AU$1,800 (US$1,378).

Meanwhile, Australia's current head statistician, David Kalisch, says there's nothing to worry about, and that names and addresses have always been part of census questionnaires, as they improve the quality of data and allow for better public policy.

"The ABS shares the same concern about your privacy as privacy advocates and has an unblemished record of keeping census data safe," he told reporters on Tuesday.

Australians could start filling out the forms from Tuesday, but the system crashed as millions of early birds attempted to fulfill their census duty. After acknowledging that things were not running as smoothly as expected, the ABS tweeted that service would not be restored by the end of the night on Tuesday.

The technical issues prompted the hashtag #censusfail, which was unsurprisingly accompanied by a fair share of humor.

Australians have until September 23 to complete the forms. The data will then be crunched by 38,000 staff members, and the findings will be published from April.