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ABS silent on justification for name collection

As the Australian Bureau of Statistics gets ready to conduct its first national digital census on 9 August, it is clear that the organisation does not wish to respond to queries raised by a former head of the organisation that cast its intentions to compulsorily collect names as being outside its remit.

The ABS quietly announced in December last year that it planned to retain names indefinitely this year and tie them to personal data.

Recently, when the current ABS chief David Kalisch admitted that the organisation had been lying and retaining names for quite some time, he backtracked a bit and said that the retention this time would be limited to four years.

But is the ABS really entitled to demand our names?

In an article, Bill McLennan, a former ABS chief, pointed out that the word "compulsory" did not figure in the Census and Statistics Act, most of which he authored.

He wrote: "By regulation, the ABS has prescribed 'name' as a topic on which statistical information may be collected and from which statistics are to be produced. However, as far as I can determine, no statistics are planned to be produced from the census about 'name'. Therefore that statistical information, that is 'name', can't be considered as being collected 'for the purposes of taking the Census'."

Last Wednesday, iTWire asked the ABS how it could demand names be compulsorily provided in the light of what McLennan has pointed out.

Since then there has been a studied silence from the ABS.

However, prior to that, when iTWire asked the ABS other questions, such as how those away from home should take the census, and what penalties would be levied on those who gave false information, the answers came thick and fast.

Today, the organisation has again used the columns of Fairfax Media, which appears to be a willing partner in spreading the bureau's spin, to try and justify the demand for names.

Nowhere is the fact that mainstream media is in lockstep with the government better illustrated. Indeed, when Fairfax caught out Kalisch for lying, it put its own spin on the revelation by headlining the article, "Census: The ABS has been quietly holding on to our names for years". A small publication like iTWire called the lie for what it was.

In the Fairfax article today, the ABS says the collection of names was helpful to determine the lifespans of Aborigines. But then why it does need the names of all and sundry?

Ever since its name collection scheme was criticised, the ABS has been shouting itself hoarse and trying to convince the populace that it can provide adequate security for the data it collects.

But in the face of repeated data leaks all over the world — the most recent example was the leak of emails from the US Democratic National Committee that led to the resignation of its chairperson such statements cannot be taken even at face value.

The danger in this kind of overreach is that Australians, who are well known for giving authorities the metaphorical finger in this kind of situation, may react adversely and provide false data in the census. Or else, they may boycott the census altogether.


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Sam Varghese

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A professional journalist with decades of experience, Sam for nine years used DOS and then Windows, which led him to start experimenting with GNU/Linux in 1998. Since then he has written widely about the use of both free and open source software, and the people behind the code. His personal blog is titled Irregular Expression.