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.

Q10 Do you feel that you have given your informed consent to the uses to which 2016 Census data will be applied?

This question was required with only Yes and No options. The overwhelming majority of respondents (88.64%) do not consider that they have given informed consent to the uses of the 2016 census data.

There is an obvious logical link between failure to inform the public of the implications of the changes to the 2016 census (or even that any significant changes had been made), the concept of informed consent and the avoidance techniques detailed in early survey questions.

People can only consent to the uses they are aware of. With no publicity surrounding the public consultation or decision to retain names and addresses for the purpose of cross matching data with administrative datasets there is an obvious democratic and legislative issue yet to be addressed by the Australian government. In particular, the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet which is now overseeing the linked data projects for use with 2016 census data and the ABS which is carrying out the data linkage and administering access has serious questions to answer in terms of the legislative and democratic and ethical issues stemming from the use of census data under the Census and Statistics Act 1905 for purposes other than statistical use. Read the section on Data Linkage for a detailed explanation of these issues.