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Rosie Williams

The dialectical relationship between the Australian census and privacy legislation is about to take another turn.

The National Data Commissioner has opened the proposed Data Sharing and Release legislation for consultation again in preparation to proceed with bringing it before parliament in mid 2020.

The legislation was last opened for comment a year ago and I wrote a lengthy ariticle of the role of the 2016 census in the re-purposing of administrative data for research. The article has now been republished in Innovation Australia where it is bound to garner some blowback.

Given that there are quite powerful interests with an investment in re-using our administrative data for purposes other than those for which we have supplied it (ie to access government services), I thought it worth republishing my original submission so that people can judge for themselves the quality of my research.

The last census was incredibly controversial for reasons that have not been well articluted by the media. The bulk of the media only really came on board in great numbers when the census site went down and caught the attention of the entire country but the privacy sector had been running a campaign for months prior to this event.

My submission to the Parliamentary Inquiry that followed the debacle was effectively a research project that included the results (and data) for an online survey that drew over 500 responses from the public. The survey focused on people's experiences with the 2016 census and their feelings around the de-anonymisation of that survey.

However, as the submission elaborates, while it took till 2016 for the government to find an ABS Head willing to de-anonymise the census, this was far from the first time an Australian government had tried. All previous attempts had failed in the face of massive public backlash.

In fact, the formation of Commonwealth privacy legislation in Australia is directly intertwined with past attempts to de-anonymise the census.

It was as a result of the protests of the 1970's censuses, the government formed the Australian Law Reform Commission to inquire into the balance between the collection and storage of personal information in Australian censuses and the right of the individual to privacy:

The ALRC received a wide-ranging reference on privacy from the federal Attorney-General in April 1976. At the same time, public controversy arose in relation to certain aspects of the census to be held on 30 June 1976, therefore, the Attorney-General requested that the implications of the census for individual privacy be taken into account in the Commission's general reference. The ALRC released a discussion paper Privacy and the Census (ALRC DP 8) in 1978 and its first report, Privacy and the Census (ALRC Report 12), was tabled in federal Parliament in November 1979. (Quote from the ALRC website.)

My submission traces this history back over four decades, placing the current state of affairs in an historical context of previously failed attempts through government documents and media stories of prior events reminiscent of those which occurred in 2016.

Far from being dismissed, my submission was cited twice in the Final Report to the Inquiry and received many endorsements, including from the former Head of the ABS, Bill McLennan who wrote this in his own submission to the Inquiry:

I was impressed by the #Censusfail submission to this Committee. It very clearly showed some good analysis that would have helped the ABS to run a better Census if it had done such research before developing the Census proposal. It also saved me from explaining the current thrust in government with the Government Data Linkage Project, and its likely links to the Census.

Despite the Parliamentary Inquiry in 2016, the government's advice on the legality of using personal information supplied with the 2016 census for purposes other than statistics was accepted but the government can not continue it's plan to integrate our administrative data to supply as research data without introducing a new law to make it legal. This law is The Data Sharing and Release Act.

The ABS would like you to know that it disagrees with this interpretation (which is based on arguments from former Heads of the ABS). Kanchan Dutt, Director, Transformation, Internal and Media Communications wrote to me earlier in the year in response to my article on the vulnerability exposed in ABS TableBuilder, claiming that:

Finally, the Data Sharing and Release Act will not override the Privacy Act. Any disclosure of personal information or personal which is authorised or required under Australian law meets the requirements of the Privacy Act and the Australian Privacy Principles by virtue of the condition in Australian Privacy Principle 6 that the disclosure of information is authorised or required by another Australian law.

It appears to be the argument of the ABS, that given the Data Sharing and Relase Act will authorise the integration and access to administrative data that the Privacy Act 1988 allows this under Australian Privacy Principle 6 which allows disclosure where it is 'required or authorised by Australian law'.

To me this is nothing but a circular argument and underlines that this integration is not legally defensible without the new legislation but I'll let you make up your own mind.

The #CensusFail Submission

Disclaimer: Different versions supplied as is and with no representations as to the usability on different devices.

The submission was originally published also in HTML form on a domain of mine that has been removed due to lack of funds. If you would like to support my work please check out my Patreon page.

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