news Online advocacy organisation Digital Rights Watch (DRW) has called for an independent inquiry into the 2016 Census following the failure of the Census website on 9 August and concerns over the way the national population survey has been managed.
The inquiry is needed to “restore faith in the Australian Bureau of Statistics [ABS] and Government’s ability to handle online privacy”, the group said.
The Government’s handling of the online Census demonstrates “both a total disrespect for personal privacy rights and lack of digital literacy,” according to Digital Rights Watch board member Amy Gray.
“We need an independent investigation of the whole process, including a forensic report of the cause of the website crash, the handling of privacy concerns and the outsourcing of key services to private companies,” she said.
Describing the Census as a “vital social and government planning tool”, Gray said the handling of privacy concerns and an education campaign by the ABS has been “a debacle from start to finish”.
“Now they are botching the explanation of what happened to cause the website to crash and making people even more distrustful of providing their information,” she added.
The ABS has said that heavy web traffic on Census night, coinciding with a distributed denial of service (DDoS) attack and a hardware failure, caused the online Census system to be taken offline as a “precaution”. The site had previously weathered three other DDoS attacks earlier the same day, it said.
“To deal with this mess, the ABS should act immediately to address people’s main privacy concerns, including at a bare minimum informing the public that they will not be fined if they choose to leave name and address data blank,” Gray said. “In the longer term, the retention of name and address data should always be at the discretion of the citizen.”
Previously, Census data was kept for 18 months before being deleted. In 2016, the ABS had opted to store the data for up to four years, raising privacy concerns over the fact that Australians were being asked to provide their names and addresses along with other data.
The ABS has stated that Census data will be held “securely”, keeping names and addresses separate from other personal and household information.
While the Census is “too important to boycott”, she said, people should not be blamed for not wanting to put their personal details on the Census forms “after all that has happened”.
“The ABS should start again with a proper consultation process that includes civil society and privacy advocates, and not just an internal assessment,” Gray concluded.