Census 2016 – privacy, DOS and the hack that wasn’t

23 Aug 2016

  • Privacy and Compliance

Given the level of angst created around the 2016 Australian Census by the denial of service attack and attempted (yet unsuccessful) hacking, a charge of a “significant invasion of privacy” by former head of the Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS) Bill McLennan seems a little like small beer.

Many reading this will have been frustrated by the attacks on August 9, yet in a subsequent initial investigation, Privacy Commissioner Timothy Pilgrim concluded that the Chief Australian Statistician David Kalisch, took a “pro-privacy precaution” when he shut down the online Census form.

While the Australian Signals Directorate assured the public that “personal information was not inappropriately accessed, lost or mishandled” and that there was “no data breach”.

However, a number of Australian privacy advocates flagged these attacks and changes to the way the Census is conducted raise issues around illegality and the possibility of people not cooperating with the gathering of Census data into the future.

Groups such as the Australian Privacy Foundation are actively calling on the ABS to stop using people’s names in the analysis of their data and are adamant in their desire to have all names deleted.

Further, Independent Senator Nick Xenophon called for the entire Census to be postponed, citing consumer confusion over the ability to lodge online and a lack of readily flowing information.

What is clear though, given the rapidity of change in a data-driven world, it follows that the way data is collected, stored and analysed by the ABS in the Australian Census must change too. It is expected that 65% of Australians will complete the 2016 Census online, a doubling of the 2011 number. In order to develop policies and provide services, and drive efficiency, competition, innovation and empower consumers Government requires more sophisticated data.

Head of Census for the ABS, Duncan Young, asserted that the purpose of keeping names on file for a longer period was to enable it time to do its work. Further, Mr Young was able to confirm that wide consultation had taken place and that “by making these changes we can further enrich Australian’s lives”.

In any data gathering exercise, and in particular one as large as the Census, privacy is an imperative. It is interesting to note that in the last two Census (2006 & 2011), five per cent of respondents were tracked to analyse changes over time.

Nonetheless, Government needs to be more transparent when it comes to explaining how and why they use and store the data they gather.

Read more here.

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