Big Brother’s little helper? Why people say no to the census

Census information is tightly protected by privacy law, so why do so many Australians hate and fear the census? AAP

AUSTRALIA BY NUMBERS: Today, the Australian Bureau of Statistics will release the first batch of its 2011 census data. We’ve asked some of the country’s top demographers and statisticians to crunch the numbers on Australia’s population: how we live, where we work, who our families are and how we spend our time.

Before we get into the numbers, though, here’s privacy expert Bruce Arnold on why some choose to opt out of the census all together.

The national census of population and housing is one of the more benign aspects of Australian government. The information collected ensures public money is allocated on the basis of need and that parliamentary House of Representatives seats are accurately distributed.

Census information is tightly protected by privacy law. And the Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS), responsible for the census and other data collection, has been notably free of scandals or claims of inefficiency. Why, then, do some people hate and even fear the census? Does it reflect a legitimate concern about privacy?

Australians like sharing. They share information on Facebook. They gawk at reality television shows and the tabloids. They talk loudly on mobile phones in buses, trains and taxis. They volunteer information for genealogical databases and services that are building global genetic profiles. But some of the same people – there’s little authoritative research on demographics and numbers – are vehemently opposed to ABS data collection.

Some fear the census is Big Brother’s little helper, adopting a privacy rhetoric fashionable in the United States: one that sees government as unnecessarily intrusive, or even oppressive. Complaints about the census include claims the government uses the data to profile and even track people.

Australians, along with their overseas peers, have recourse to online “survivalist” fora and magazines. Those fora attract people with anxieties about aliens (of the domestic or extraterrestrial variety), stealth helicopters and drones used by the One World Government (a conspiracy involving Prince Philip, the Vatican Bank, and the Rothschilds, among others), multinational corporations, “chemtrails” and other supposed dangers.

Unsurprisingly, these sources feature claims that the census is a precursor to identifying, disarming and incarcerating their readers. Such claims, on occasion, reference the supposed use of census data by Nazi Germany as the basis for the Holocaust, which, of course, historians regard as contentious.

You’re legally obliged to provide census data. Flickr/exquisitur

Some people simply resent compliance requirements: you are legally obliged to provide census data, in contrast to the pseudo-voluntarism involved in giving your data to credit card services, banks, retailers and other non-government bodies.

It’s unclear whether the same people are unhappy about compliance with law on seat-belts, the electoral roll, taxation, speed limits, workplace safety and product safety. Australians are sometimes inconsistent in their embrace of a rigorous libertarianism and willingness to enjoy the benefits of someone else’s compliance.

Others damn ABS data collection as irrelevant, reflecting a misunderstanding of social statistics and of how information is used by the public and private sectors. If you believe that everyone else is supplying “junk data” or that politicians and bureaucrats make decisions without any reference to data, why interrupt your viewing of MasterChef for five minutes to fill out a form?

Some people appear to be comfortable with data collection – in the abstract – but are worried about the 43,000 individual collectors. What sort of person would take a casual job as a collector and face grumpy householders, barking dogs and other inconveniences? Surely only the sort of person with a prurient interest in your affairs and a desire to snicker over your secrets with a group of friends at the local Leagues Club? That discomfort is a function of vanity.

The sad reality is that information about an individual household, or about you, is just not that interesting. If you’re worried about collectors peeking and prying, you can provide information online and cut out the collector. You can more reasonably worry about your local postie having a surreptitious read of your mail or deprive you of an interesting-looking parcel.

In considering anxieties about the census, it’s worth recalling that some people would like us to provide more information, rather than less, and have that information personally identifiable and available in perpetuity.

The ABS and National Archives of Australia face ongoing pressure from genealogists to permanently preserve all census records and allow anyone access to those records. Both organisations, given respect for privacy, have resisted those calls. There are times when you can overshare information.

Do you have privacy concerns about the census? Tell us why in the comments section below.

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