Every few years, Australia conducts a nation wide census, surveying every resident about a huge cross section of things, from basic details to cultural and religious background, from socio-economic status to sexuality. This year, for the very first time, they’re (admitting to) keeping our names along with the data they’re collecting.
Many people have voiced concerns about the implications this change has for people’s privacy; many others have responded. And I’ve been a little shocked by how people who are usually in favour of policy that’s (a) evidence based and (b) respectful of people’s rights, are now dismissing critics as “census truthers,” or conspiracy theorists, or worse.
Incivility. ON THE INTERNET. Can you believe it?
The same arguments keep cropping up again and again, and in many ways they’re independent of the census context. I think a lot of this applies whether we’re arguing about the census, or law enforcement, or the conduct of companies rather than governments.
I do not have advice for you on the census; whether to do it or not, and if you do, how. That is for you to decide. This post is about unpicking some of the arguments that have been levelled against critics of the census.
The details that the census ask for aren’t much more than Centrelink, Medicare and the Tax Office already require.
If you think that other governments departments already have the same breadth of personalised, multidimensional data that the census takes, then logically we wouldn’t need the census. We could just use that data. But you know why we can’t — because they don’t. They have nothing like the kind of data the ABS needs. That data doesn’t cover everyone. It doesn’t cover everything. It suffers from biases due to being optional, or gathered under certain circumstances, or any number of other reasons.
You can’t simultaneously claim that we need this extra level of detail now while also claiming it’s nothing new. Any deficiencies in existing data reflect data that is not gathered or linked, and is therefore not a privacy risk to someone.
In other words, if it adds something to our statistical capabilities, it necessarily adds something to the privacy risk.
Eh, I don't really care if the government or hackers have that data on me. It doesn't worry me.
Commonly used apps already track and store your identity, location, and many other details about your life. The census isn't as bad as many of them.
(These are pretty much the same argument: I/some people cede control of privacy and don’t care, therefore it’s not an issue for anyone.)
People can opt out of using eg. Facebook. Many do. Or they can use a pseudonym. They can omit their religion and wage, if they like. The worst that happens is they’re kicked off the service. Which can be bad, but not “risking daily fines and prosecution” bad. No app is mandatory. There are no fines for turning your GPS off. It is not a legal requirement to use any of these things, and just because lots of people do, it doesn’t mean everyone does.
Even those who do, and who share things you perceive to be incredibly intimate on public social media still deserve to decide what they reveal about themselves and what they don’t, and to whom.