Australian Privacy Foundation slams “Orwellian” census data retention


news The Australian Privacy Foundation (APF) has strongly criticised what it calls the “Orwellian” storage of census data by the Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS).

At issue is the ABS’s “unilateral” decision to store all Australians’ name and address data collected in the 9 August census for four years.

“This is a change to its longstanding and widely supported policy not to keep that identifying information after the census was complete,” said the APF.

Furthermore, explained the APF in a statement, if someone refuses to comply with a direction to provide data, they will now incur a criminal fine of $100 per day until that data is forthcoming.

“The change was done in December without any meaningful consultation,” said the APF. “A key report was slipped out before Christmas Eve, with another change last week. It is a breach of trust, a high-handed and arrogant abuse of legislative power. This is a very different ABS to the one Australians used to know and trust.”

According to the APF, on 31 March, Gemma Van Halderen, General Manager at the ABS, told the organisation that the ABS was taking this direction because “technology has changed,” and “there has also been a shift in public perception and expectations about the use of their data”.

David Vaile from the APF said that Van Halderen’s claim that changes in technology and the “supposed” change in Australian’s attitudes would support a more privacy-intrusive approach by the ABS was “wrong”, and displayed “bad faith” with the Australian public.

“Changes in technology have, if anything, increased the risk, so the ABS decision to store our names and addresses for years is all the more worrying,” Vaile said. “It creates an irresistible ‘honeypot’ for hackers and cyber criminals in an age when no IT security can keep out ‘motivated intruders’.”

“Serious data breaches are now a real and increasing danger,” he continued. Retaining Name and Address will also attract the scores of agencies with powers of compulsory access to data … It may only need the stroke of a pen or a tweak of a regulation for the Government to use the data for other purposes, should it decide to do so.”

APF Vice Chair Kat Lane commented: “Australians value their privacy, they used to trust the ABS … They may be horrified to know that the name and address of everyone in their household will now be retained, without consent, so it is no longer anonymous.”

Creating a national database of every Australian’s personal information on a rolling four-year basis is a danger to privacy, said the APF, adding that it is an “intrusive overreach by a Government which seems increasingly contemptuous of the universal right to privacy and security of sensitive personal information”.

The APF called on the ABS to immediately reverse its “misconceived and dangerous” policy to store all Australians’ name and address data for years. If that does not happen, it said, the Minister with responsibility for the Bureau, Alex Hawke, should “rein in this rogue department”.

Additionally, it said, the recalled Parliament should pass the delayed Data Breach Notification law and the Privacy Tort law, giving Australians the right to be told if their data is breached, as well as legal protection “they could rely on”.


  1. There is information that I don’t care about the government keeping about me. There is also information which I don’t believe the government has any need or right to know about me.
    I am deeply concerned at the possibility that information which should be a private matter, such as religious affiliation, will be forcefully extracted from Australians.
    I am already wondering what the limits are in filling out this census are, in a way which will not call down penalties on my head, but which will also only disclose those things the government has a legitimate need and right to know.

    • Odd. I’m looking at the headline for this publication: “Delimiter Just Australia. Just technology.”

      Most respondents here seem to want everything to do with computers Bigga Betta Fassssta. Including the acquisition of data over the thickest possible most modern fiber cables… None of the copper crap!


      I’ve noticed more than a few bemoaning the “lack of planning” in some areas. Dunno ’bout the “professionals” here, but my idea of planning is to see what was happening 5 years ago, 10 years ago, etc. I can see clearly since nobody was apparently living in Area 51 between 1991 and 2001 that probably that area is now ripe for some redevelopment, and maybe all the now unoccupied land can be resumed and resold to deserving customers… Damn won’t there be some fun when we push the squatters out with bulldozers!

      • You think you are making points, but you are just flailing randomly. Yes, Delimiter people like, love or are otherwise interested in technology. This doesn’t mean that they will unconditionally love anything that is made possible by technology. How does that even make sense to you as an argument? It is clearly nonsense. Liking technology doesn’t mean unconditionally loving everything that is made possibly by that technology.
        Then you go on a bizarre rant, essentially a false dichotomy, saying that if we don’t waive every right to privacy that we have that society will somehow magically collapse.
        Ok, we get it – you love genealogy and you don’t care what rights other people have to forego so that you can indulge. In fact, you don’t care about facts, logic or personal integrity – just so long as you can indulge. Well it is good to know where you stand, but there are very few people who will be taken in by your nonsense or who will happily hand over their rights just for your indulgence.
        Perhaps you should be putting your efforts into understanding the importance and meaning of human rights instead of trying to find bad arguments to prop up your bizarre obsessions.

      • It is precisely because of my knowledge of technology that leads me to want to protect my personal data.

        The government is welcome to the information required for running government. The Census is a very useful thing from this point of view. However the Census only needs to know that there is an individual who identifies with religion xyz and works in ABC industry. They do not need to know that said individual is me.

        As others have mentioned, the combination of this issue, plus the Metadata, Filters, and many other various “attacks” on my personal data, make the individual issues much greater than they may initially seem.
        The government does not need to tie my census details to me. There is no benefit to this. As someone familiar with Technology, I know it would be exceedingly easy to simply replace the Specific identifier with a variable, and then have the Specific identifier destroyed. The comment that it makes census data less useful is not explained clearly enough. The benefits are not present to justify the change.

        Oh and yes I am aware that I am already giving a lot of my personal information away. Although Giving is not correct. I choose to sell it for various services rendered. I also restrict what I give away when I can. I specifically check privacy agreements, uncheck advertising usage etc. I would restrict it further if possible, and in fact I sometimes takes measures to ensure a degree of obfuscation. For example creating an email address linked specifically to a corporate entity, that contains dummy information.
        I would also take action against any entity that used my data inappropriately. For example, providing it to a government entity without an appropriate warrant. That action may simply be my refusal to purchase their product any longer, but would include a request for all information they have on me, and a request for that information to be deleted.

  2. I wonder why we would bother to tell the truth, if census results are to be kept secret, presumably to be used for purposes of which we don’t approve. Otherwise, why the need for secrecy?

  3. Is the ABS excluded from comlying with the Privacy Act?
    What is the compelling reason that this sensitive information is retained, without approval from the subjects, without specified duration, and without a clear and specific purpose?. “In case we need it for whatever reason in future” is not an acceptable reason according the legislation. Census data is very valuable, but it’s value and reason for collection does not require identification of specific individuals.

  4. I’m sure I have aready posted on this subject in this forum. Just can’t remember when :(

    It is sad that so many Aussies feel their descendants won’t need their ancestors’ details a hundred years from now. Genealogy may not be everyone’s cup of tea, but it is vitally necessary for our living history.

    Australia is one of the very few nations that does not permanently store all this treasure and release it to the public domain after 99 years. And Australia is the worst (hardest) country for genealogical research.

    Simply put, this prohibition on retaining census data is arguably the most visible symptom of Australian technophobia.

    • So it is personally important to you. Great. You don’t have the right to my information just because of your hobbies.
      This has nothing to do with technophobia. Plenty of technophiles are against this.
      Find another hobby.

      • Correct. If genealogy floats your boat then publish all your details, but leave me out of it until I choose.

    • It’s not technophobia. It’s a matter of privacy. In fact I find it a tad amusing that your labelling folks who are against this as “technophobic” since a lot of people who are against this are usually the most “switched on” and knowledgeable in technology/security

      I am more than happy for a genealogical study to hold my information, name and DoB if they ask for it and I choose to participate on a database. I am not happy for a random government survey to hold my information “indefinitely” w/o any specific purpose other than “in case we need it in the future”

      I respect the purposes and need for a census as a record of a snapshot of what Australia is for this period. But that’s all I approve it for. A snapshot not a record. I do not like the fact they are putting in personal information for storage that they have no need of.

      And besides if my “ancestors” want my information.. they can have it the same way all of us have up to this point – the very many family photos, letters, etc that we keep and pass on to future generations

    • Gordon, you’re simply an apologist for the more authoritarian viewpoints, especially when voiced by the Liberals. Genealogy is not important, most people who engage in it seem to do so out of a desire to find a meaning for their life in an uncaring universe. It’s simply not there not matter how much you wish for it.

      Can you provide an actual example of how it’s materially useful? (Perhaps the one exclusion is for tracking genetic diseases but then we have far more accurate tests for most of those nowadays, so that’s defunct too.)

      It also pales in comparison to the erosion of freedoms this country has seen in the last 30 years under successive authoritarian governments (predominately Liberal ones but Labour have put in a fair share of these laws to control us).

      This data has enough value being safely anonymised and good government would remember it is also flawed and not demand valuable information it does not need nor cannot protect satisfactorily.

      Australia is moving far too far down this path and it’d be good if some people from outside the University/IPA(Lib) or Union-Uni Politics/Member of Parliament process actually started doing what the job is titled, actually being a representative of the people who voted for them.

    • @Gordon how does most of the data collected by the census help with Genealogy?

      I mean how does it help if I’m a ‘Jedi’ to track down family lineage. Just assuming folk are strong in the force are related seems a bit of a stretch. Or how many lightsabers that are connected to the internet that is used in the household etc?

      I’m probably missing something being I know little to nothing about Genealogy

      • Census data can help if various records “appear to be wrong”. Having conducted a lot of genealogy examination of my family history, I can say that census records can help pinpoint unknown changes in families, such as when my great-great-great grandfather remarried (one census had his original wife, four years later it had his second wife… UK census of course…). In those days, however, everything was recorded on paper, not put online where every Tom, “Dick” and Harry can get access to it. If I want someone to have access to my personally identifying data, I will give it to them when I initiate business with them. I don’t want the “Department of False Accusations” to misread some data, attempt to “match it” with census data (screwing up all their information in the process) and assume it was related to me (thereby making my life a living misery), or to have some company/organisation decide that because I’m christened “X-religion”, and I don’t go to church, that they need to send me some “compelling” information.

        There’s a line between generalised census data, and personally identifiable information, and the ABS has crossed that line (and not by a few mere steps…)

      • Chris has it right on.

        Worth making the point that the technophobes have no need to worry (provided always the security is good) since the only data needed is:
        Full Name,
        (exact) DoB,
        which address this is,
        Spouse if any,
        Occupation at this time.

        The Tenant-of-Record/Owner is listed as such, with family (if present) listed next; then all others.

        Civilised nations (that’s not Oz) lock this info away from EVERYBODY for 99 years. EVERYBODY includes MI5/6, USaffabet Agencies, ASIO, ASIS and various other people including but not limited to ShinBet.

        @Stephen – for you there is no use whatever. For those of your descendants who feel it necessary to understand their present predicament, it would be enormously useful to find out where you were 150 or 235 years in their past, and who was in the house with you.

        @RocK_M and others – It’s not a matter of privacy. Various courts in Oz and other places have firmly established your right to privacy vanishes the moment you die. Importantly, the longer you’re dead the less control over your life-story your descendants and creditors have. At 99 years, zero.

        I’ll make this clear: youse lot cark it tonight, NOBODY UNDER THE AGE OF 101 YEARS OLD in 99 years time can get to look where you were on the night in question. Your secrets are safeguarded for about a century, and at that distance, sorry, NOBODY CARES ANY MORE.

        It’s a good thing none of youse are members of or live in “less civilised” communities where ALL your habits and misdeeds become immortalised in vocalised lyrics within minutes–there’s no such thing as “privacy” in some parts.

        • So your argument boils down to: other places violate privacy, so we should too? Can you even begin to comprehend the logical failures of your arguments?

          • It’s a shame you can’t be bothered to read the electrons in front of your face.

            I’ll repeat: Various courts in Oz and other places have firmly established your right to privacy vanishes the moment you die. It’s exactly the same principle that you cannot libel a dead person, ie: their descendants cannot sue you.

            You and others believe that anything not written on paper and stored in several geographically sepated locations is the only safe way to store information since it is almost certainly not indexed. As it happens, if you bother to do proper research on a subject that terrifies you, all census data is indexed and finding a particular name combination is very simple. It’s sorting the real from all the others which takes detective work.

            I suppose the next thing you’ll be on about is the habit of religious organisations keeping detailed records of baptisms, marriages and funerals? Or the states’ Departments of Births Deaths and Marriages?

            BTW, have you any idea at all of what Woolworths, Coles, banks generally, finance (credit) agencies know about you? These institutions can actually predict what you will do tomorrow, next week and even next year. You think you’ve got privacy? Lose your plastic, cease doing any business at all with banks, always shop at different locations, never “borrow” money, and use only Ixquick or DuckDuckGo as search engines. Oh, and stay off forums, they are rich hunting grounds. Then you’ll get some privacy.

            Some have accused me of being a “prepper”. I’m not, though I can do a better job than most. But youse lot seem to be attempting to get ready for something.

            Ah, Renai: I’ll understand if you kill this post.

          • It’s a shame you can’t be bothered to read the electrons in front of your face.

            Actually, that’d be photons…

          • You keep going on in circles trying to justify your nonsense. Yes, I can read, yes I comprehend, yes I can see through your illogical arguments. Here you go yet again with some of the most tortuous reasoning I have seen in a long time. I don’t give a flying fig what the government has decided happens to privacy when people are dead; that has no application at all to living people – who absolutely have that right. Do you even have the remotest chance of comprehending how bizarre your attempts to justify your position are?
            Privacy is a human right. Human rights are demonstrably meaningless to you when they get in the way of your hobbies. That makes you mentally ill.
            With the blah blah blah you keep spouting trying to justify the incremental and astonishing attack on basic human rights you are just showing the nature of your character. It isn’t pretty. But please, keep going – it is like watching a car wreck in motion. Ugly, horrific, abhorrent and yet strangely fascinating.

        • @gordon45: “It’s not a matter of privacy. Various courts in Oz and other places have firmly established your right to privacy vanishes the moment you die”

          Cool beans!

          Guess what.. I’m still alive and “typing” here (unless I’m a ghost possessing someone to type… nope just checked still alive w/ a pulse). And whilst I’m still alive I’m still entitled to this so called “privacy”. And that involves me not giving personal information unless I give permission to do so. I couldn’t give a rats arse what happens to the info when I die but whilst I still have a pulse I care about that information

          “Worth making the point that the technophobes have no need to worry (provided always the security is good) since the only data needed is:
          Full Name,
          (exact) DoB,
          which address this is,”

          Name, DoB and Address is the building blocks of EVERY BASIC SECURITY CHECK (Spuse/Occupation is just icing on the cake). You can impersonate *ANYONE* with just those 3 information. Not that this is likely to happen at all… but again this is 3 basic security information I refuse to hand over for the purposes of being stored “just in case”… security for a CC sure? logging in to websites/shops I can keep track of? no problems. Even as I mentioned a project I would volunteer for no problems… a nebulous “survey” being stored for no reason? I don’t think so bud

    • From what I read about modern DNA testing statistics it would seem that quite often the milkman was involved so many genealogists find themselves barking up the wrong family tree ;)

  5. I can predict that many people will just fabricate the information that they put in the census in response to this retarded and crazy idea of the ABS to keep identifying information. Have they really thought this through? That is, beyond threatening us with $100 per day fines.! We do not like to be threatened

    • You know, I never would have thought of putting fabricated responses on the Census form, until now.

      Why would I bother fabricating it in the past? It takes more effort than answering truthfully, and it wasn’t tied to me as an individual, so the risk was low.

      Now? Yeah, well, the very fact we’re having this discussion says an awful lot.

      The ABS needs to think carefully about this. Do they really want to increase the number of ‘non-truthful’ responses they get?

  6. In theory, it should be fairly easy for people to fabricate responses. I mean, if the government had this information to verify the responses, it wouldn’t need to ask for the information via census.
    This looks like a poorly thought out idea. However I wonder if it is being done in a kind of softening-up effort, in anticipation of further – more intrusive – information gathering?
    Surely it isn’t going to be of any benefit for the short-term stated goals of the census. So it is stupidity, or is it strategy disguised as stupidity?

  7. Austria collected people’s individual religious beliefs and names in a census in 1900.
    Who used that juicy information in the 1940’s after invading ?
    You don’t win a prize for the answer.

  8. Looks like the ABS is just another one of the governments intelligence agencies. They may as well put an ASIO or AFP logo on the top.

    All care, but no responsibility when your data is stolen or leaked.

  9. I’m strongly considering putting my name as “Scott Nothingtodowithyou” and my faith as Pastafarianism.

    They may compel me to respond to the census, but I see no reason why I can’t poison their well of data.

  10. It is becoming more and more the case that the only privacy one can enjoy is through active disinformation. What a waste of people’s energies on all sides.

  11. Some information on the history of the census’ changes relating to keeping identifying information as well as ways people may stop the problem, avoid the problem, etc can be found here:

    Hopefully we can get the ABS to think again before August 9. Otherwise, a lot of people will be going camping in the bush while others just provide inaccurate info.

    Good thinkin’ ABS.

  12. If this census issue was an isolated incident then I wouldn’t bother taking a stand on it, but it’s the pattern of privacy invasion, disrespect for human rights, and the erosion of checks and balances on our government that has me concerned.

    Collusion with the NSA, Metadata retention, SIOs which allow security forces to do anything they want short of torture or murder (but how would you know or report on those things if they happened?).

    Meanwhile a young woman gets prosecuted for public-interest revelations about bribes paid to the PM in the form of special scholarships for his kids and tax data for some of the richest corps in Australia cannot be revealed due to the privacy concerns of their owners.

    The powerful want privacy for themselves, but not for the slaves.

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