[ Canberra Times ]

I don't trust ABS with my personal data: ex-ABS staffer

Date: May 20 2016


Noel Towell

More public service news

A former Bureau of Statistics insider says he will risk prosecution rather than trust the bureau with his personal data.

Former ABS public servant Ross Hamilton says the bureau is no longer the trustworthy institution many Australians believe it is and he is prepared to face the full force of the law rather than participate in the 2016 census.

The Canberra resident says the ABS engaged in a dodgy process to obtain the unprecedented power to retain personal information gathered in the census to be taken in August and its promises that the data will only be held temporarily are worthless.

Since 1961, all names, addresses and other identifying information supplied in census forms have been destroyed once all the other data was saved.

But this year will be different with the ABS claiming its plan to keep the identifying data will enable "a richer and dynamic statistical picture of Australia".

Privacy activists have already warned of the dangers of retaining information, despite Chief Statistician David Kalisch insisting that names and addresses will be stored securely and separately from other census data. 

Now Mr Hamilton has added his voice to the protests, writing to Mr Kalisch and demanding answers about the bureau's claims that collected data would be over-written in four years.

"If the personal identifier address data-sets are to be over-written or replaced by data-sets from the 2020 census and so on, then to claim the retention of the 2016 data as only temporary is in fact a load of rubbish as it would have become continuing, updated data-sets," Mr Hamilton said.

‚ÄčThe former ABS-staffer added that the bureau's hard-won reputation for excellence had taken a battering in recent years.

"Several quarters ago, the ABS had to admit that it was using inappropriate seasonality factors in its labour data, making its seasonal data frankly useless," he said.

"The ABS that I knew and worked in would not have gone down that path, producing gibberish data via use of outdated methodology.

"Something has gone seriously wrong."

"This pattern of ABS behaviour which obviously comes from the highest levels of the ABS is such that I can no longer believe the ABS may be trusted with data such as retention of household personal identifiers.

"Unless the ABS is able to provide appropriate detail which shall allay my concerns, I cannot in good conscience participate in the 2016 Census of Population and Housing. I am aware of the potential consequences and frankly would love the opportunity to set out these facts before a magistrate.

The bureau's project head for the census, Duncan Young, issued a response Mr Hamilton's position, saying 110-year-old legal safeguards were in place to prevent the sharing of census data with other government agencies.

"No identifiable, private or confidential data will be shared by the ABS with anyone," Mr Young said.

"In all modern censuses, the public have provided their names and addresses to the ABS as part of their census response, and have trusted the ABS to maintain their data securely, consistent with legislation.

"The ABS is asking for no additional information in 2016 than in previous censuses.

"Once 2016 census processing is complete, names and addresses will be separated from census data and they will never be re-combined.

"The retained names and addresses will be used to generate anonymous linkage keys that will support the integration of census data with other datasets to provide new insights.

"Names and addresses will be destroyed four years after collection, in August 2020 or earlier, once there is no longer any community benefit from their retention."