The census vs privacy concerns – August 7, 2011

Tuesday, 9 August 2011 is census day in Australia and Aussies will be asked to describe their their age, profession, religion, income and the family makeup in a series of personal questions.

Census question 60 is whether people want to opt-out of having their census records made available in future to historians. If you answer yes, your census information will be kept by The National Archives and made available in 99 years. If you answer “no”, your census details will be destroyed once the statistical data has been aggregated by the Australian Bureau of Statistics.

A survey by Ancestry.com.au found one third of Australians plan to answer “no” to Question 60, even though 80 per cent of people surveyed said that preserving their family history was important to them. In the 18 to 34 age range, 40 per cent said they would answer “no”, and 68 per cent of them identified privacy concerns as the reason for doing so.

As much as I am an advocate of “informed consent”, a census is an important snapshot about the population at the particular time it is taken. Why are people concerned about sharing the data, 99 years from now, after we pass on?

Is it because we don’t want the government to know too much about us? They already do, but in general, data matching rules prevent government from putting all the pieces together in one place.

Is it because we want control over when and how the information is disclosed? Maybe, but then again, we choose (whether directly or implicitly) to disclose heaps more privacy-invasive data about ourselves everyday, on websites like Facebook, Google+ and Foursquare and while shopping, under retailers’ loyalty programs such as Woolworth’s Everyday Rewards.

Is it because storing too much data in one place provides too personal a snapshot? No, and see previous point.

I wonder whether it has to do with the way the question is phrased. I mean, when Facebook wants my permission to use facial recognition (or more accurately, whether I want to opt out) to automatically identify my friends in photos without their permission, Facebook asks me whether it should “suggest photos of me to friends”.

The Ancestry.com.au survey revealed that 7 in 10 Australians are unaware that by saying no (or by not answering the question), their census information will be destroyed.

Perhaps question 60 should instead ask, “Do you want your great great grandkids and historians to be able to learn a little about you?”