Census: the social compact on de-identified data protects privacy

Census ABS site

Most Australians would expect that personal information, collected at public expense, would be routinely aggregated, de-identified to protect privacy, and used to the fullest extent possible for public benefit purposes.  

However, there have been recent media comments and concerns that the use of census records by the Australian Bureau of Statistics constitutes a breach of privacy and a breach of trust in “tracking” individuals. On the contrary, privacy has not been breached, as the Australian Statistician has a legal obligation to collect information for public benefit purposes, and he has been scrupulous in protecting the names and identifying details of all individuals. ABS has simply linked Census records to other records collected at public expense to create an aggregated but de-identified data-set that will be even more valuable for the planning of services and other public benefit purposes.

Other ground-breaking work in Australia has already used aggregated but de-identified data to document important risks that would otherwise have gone un-noticed or been imperfectly understood. These include risks from folic acid deficiency in pregnancy, risks of blood clots from long-haul air travel, and the increased cancer risks after CT scans (medical X-rays) in childhood.

In our increasingly complex world, members of the public should be reassured that, without risk to privacy, the personal information collected from them can be aggregated and used in such ways to inform and protect them, and to increase the efficiency and effectiveness of public services. Indeed by understanding, approving and monitoring the use of de-identified information in this way, citizens are extending the social compact that they have made with each other and with government for their mutual benefit.

The Productivity Commission is currently exploring issues around the availability and use of data in Australia. The Commission will realise that the use of Australian data for public benefit purposes is lagging behind what is possible in the United Kingdom, Canada, New Zealand and other democracies. Australian developments have been inhibited by concerns about whether it is possible to guarantee privacy protection. However, the experiences in Australia and overseas show that data aggregation projects have not led to breaches of privacy, and that any theoretical risks are more than justified by the countervailing public benefits.

Thus with support from the public, and with stringent legal penalties for any attempt to breach privacy, Australia will be poised to make major advances in its use of data for public benefit purposes. We congratulate the Australian Statistician for his leadership in this important area of public policy and practice.

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5 years ago

I don’t recall the public being asked if they wanted the ‘social compact’ extended. The ABS is extending it unilaterally, without public consultation – and this particular extension was rejected for both the 2006 and 2011 Censuses due to privacy issues. How has the situation changed now?

I agree that more data is better for good policy outcomes.

However the ABS has failed to provide or convince the public with a case as to WHY linking personal data will provide so many benefits that it is worth a reduction in personal privacy.

Right now we’re looking at the worst possible outcome – less accurate or comprehensive collection of data because the ABS’s leadership can neither build a solid case nor bend to public concerns (and spend the next five years building community acceptance).

We’re also likely to see lower responses to other government engagement efforts over the next few years due to the damage the ABS has caused (through its approach) to the social compact between the community and its servants (the government).

And for what benefit?

The ABS can’t even clearly tell us.

5 years ago

I have a choice whether I give my data to Google or Facebook or Woolworths. I have no choice on whether to give it the government. The problem is, nobody can stop a future government deciding to change the rules.

5 years ago

Stringent legal penalties will be a real consolation after the event and are well known to be a deterrent to theft, fraud and negligence (sarc tag). And of course we can trust people who sell this data commercially to handle it ethically at all times (more sarc tag).

Jeremy Ell
Jeremy Ell
5 years ago

Trouble is, the census data will *not* be de-identified. It looks like the ABS will save every individual’s census answers indefinitely, and in such a way that anyone knowing your name and date of birth will be able to find your answers.

In more detail: while the ABS will delete names and addresses after 4 years, it is far from clear that the “statistical linkage keys” (SLKs) will be deleted after 4 years, or at all. It looks like anyone knowing your first name, last name, sex (easy to guess as there are generally only two choices), and date of birth, will be able to get your SLK. If they also have access to the census database, they will get all your census answers.

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