Who’s afraid of statisticians? Apparently, quite a few people and organisations who have been campaigning recently against the 2016 census, labeling it as a full-blown invasion of privacy, or, in the words of former Australian statistician Bill McLennan, “the most significant invasion of privacy ever perpetrated on Australians by the Australian Bureau of Statistics”.

Their main cause of concern is the fact that the ABS announced it will retain the names and addresses of the people participating in the census for a period of four years, instead of the regular 18 months. The fact that this year’s census will be completed online has resulted in every ‘big-brother-is-watching-you’ variant commentary one can imagine, as it will enable the bureau to retain the IP of participants, as well as names and addresses.

The news for this year’s changes were received with outrage by advocates of privacy, some of them urging people to refrain from participating (which is not a good idea, since the Census and Statistics Act 1905 allows penalties of up to $180 a day for failure to complete and return a form), or – mostly – to request a print form, as this will enable people to leave the name blank. As far as civil disobedience goes, this is as tame as it can get. But the real question is: do Australians have reasons to fear the census?

Mistrust of the census is something deeply rooted in our collective unconscious, dating back to the time when Herod used the census to track down newborn Jesus – a tale many of us were brought up on. Moving from fiction to reality, census data has been used to target specific parts of the population, most notably and infamously in Nazi Germany to prosecute the Jews, but also when the US government imprisoned thousands of Japanese Americans in detention camps during the World War II.

Critics of the 2016 Australian Census changes fear that personal information could be used to target minorities, or lead to the surveillance of the Muslim population. Others are less paranoid; they simply fear for the safeguarding of the data, which could be targeted by hackers, or even by corrupt or unstable officers within the ABS, or any government agency could have access. The ABS, for its part has been dismissing these fears, insisting that it “never has and never will release information that is personally identifiable”.

The ABS explains that this decision was only made to assist the bureau in creating more, better and more detailed statistics, linking data with that collected by other government agencies. For some statistics, including interstate movement, education, employment, it is difficult to have reliable outcomes without using name and/or address data.

Moreover, the ABS assures that “identification information will be stored safely and separately from the rest of the census data”; through an elaborate process, names are turned into anonymous keys and it is this ‘anonymised’ data that will be stored and used for linking, in a database which will be separate from any census data.

The real outrage should come after the ABS admitted that this kind of linkage in not new, it has been going on for years. “What’s happening now is we are being more transparent about it,” said David W. Kalisch, head of the ABS.

In the end, it all boils down to the ABS asking Australians to trust it. Its argument is sound. In the 100-plus years it has conducted censuses, it has never given any reason for people to mistrust it, enjoying an excellent reputation for the way it treats data – not to mention that it is held accountable, under Section 19 of the Census and Statistics Act 1905. Misuse of data is an offence, ensuing to fines of up to $21,600 or imprisonment for up to two years, or both, for officers found guilty.

Which means that anyone feeling vulnerable should remember that there are laws protecting citizens. In fact, before being outraged, people should probably first take a look at the Privacy Act of 1988. But this is hard work – posting on Facebook and signing petitions is much easier and more fun.
By the way, the fact that the anti-census campaigns to protect people’s privacy are mostly conducted in the realm of social media is ironic, to say the least. Here we are, having completely handed out our private details to profit-based corporations like Facebook and Google, allowing them to target us with ‘curated content’, ‘news-related algorithms’ and a flood of customised advertisements, complaining that the government will snoop into our private affairs.

The irony is even bigger, considering that the ‘most significant invasion of privacy’ has already happened – last year, when the government passed the metadata retention law, according to which not only are telecommunications and internet service providers obliged to store their customers’ data for two years, but also all federal and state police, the Australian Security and Intelligence Organisation (ASIO) and some government agencies are granted access to that metadata.

It doesn’t matter that, when asked about it, Attorney General George Brandis was infamously unable to even feign knowledge of what metadata is – he didn’t even bother to check his own department’s website, where ‘metadata’ is defined as information about a communication (the who, when, where and how), not the content or substance of a communication (the what). So the government allows 85 security and policing agencies to access two years of an individual’s phone and internet usage records, in order to prevent terrorism attacks and serious crime.

It was a textbook case of freedom suppression in exchange for security, identical to what is happening around the world, confirming whistleblower Edward Snowden’s warnings when he revealed the extent of the US government’s systematic surveillance program that creates data shared by the members of the ‘Five Eyes’ alliance (Australia, the US, UK, New Zealand and Canada, which recently dropped out of the deal).

It was also proof that governments around the world are stretching the social contract to its breaking point.

According to the ‘social contract’ theories, individuals consent to surrender some of their freedoms to a majority-elected government, in exchange for protection of their remaining rights. This convention is one of the fundamentals of democracy, as it has evolved in the past couple of centuries, but it seems to be degrading to forms of totalitarianism. This kind of compromise begins the moment citizens allow anything to become a ‘state secret’. The mere existence of ‘state secrets’ contradicts democracy, which, in principle, should ensure absolute transparency for the government – and absolute privacy for the citizens, not the other way round.

For all its flaws, representative democracy gives citizens means to protect themselves and fight for their rights. Australian citizens were offered this opportunity a few weeks ago, when they elected people to fight on their behalf in the parliament. Only this time nobody seemed to care about issues like privacy and freedom. It was all about negative gearing.