From Census to Surveillance

Forty years after the first attempts to de-anonymise the Australian census, in 2016 the government finally succeeded. This is the story of the forty year struggle against efforts to turn the Australian census from a population snapshot into cradle-to-grave surveillance and the public response.


It's August 9, 2016. The government has been running a scare campaign for weeks, turning a mundane form-filling event into a nation-wide law and order operation.

Afraid of prosecution (and simply to do their civic duty), millions go online as instructed on August 9, 2016 to fill out the Australian Census of Housing and Population.

Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull tweets (in what later must have read as a smug tone) that he had completed his Census without any issues.

Overseas ...(Q5)

Shortly after this missive went live, the Census site went down like a boxer with a glass jaw. For reasons yet to be fully explained, rather than inform the public that the site had been deliberately removed from public access, the ABS continued to issue instructions through social media channels to complete the survey.

As a result, much of the country spent hour after hour staring at error messages, creating a groundswell of frustration in what was a very public demonstration of just how fragile and unprepared the Census systems were for the task for which they were created.

Hours later, the ABS publicly admits for the first time that the Census site is down while thousands take to Twitter making #CensusFail the top global trending hashtag.

This submission is dedicated to the over 500 people who contributed their experiences to the #CensusFail survey. But the #CensusFail issue doesn't begin on August 9, 2016. The real story of how Australia's Census became a source of national outrage has a surprisingly long history.

Reaching back through the decades from the campaign against inclusion of names in the 1971 censusthe Australia Card protests of the 80's, through the Save our Census review of the 90's and culminating in the last minute decision to de-anonymise the 2016 Census, this submission provides an overview of the epic struggle between the populace and our government over the right to decide what personal information we share and the uses to which it is put.