2967.0 - Information Paper: Parliamentary Inquiry into the Treatment of Census Forms: Submission from the Australian Bureau of Statistics , 1997  
ARCHIVED ISSUE Released at 11:30 AM (CANBERRA TIME) 18/07/1997  First Issue
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Contents >> The Privacy Concerns Relating to the Storage and Use of Name-Identified Census Data



Most people recognise that individual privacy is an important community issue. Because it is in the business of collecting information from persons,
families and households, the ABS is conscious of the need to carefully balance these concerns for privacy against the community benefit that accrues from its statistical collections. Getting that balance right is essential for ABS if it is to continue to carry out its job effectively.

In 1971 the then Treasurer (Mr Sneddon) ordered that all census forms held by the ABS should be destroyed and that the forms from the 1971 Census should be destroyed as soon as statistical processing was completed. This action was prompted by privacy concerns following an extended public debate. This had been stimulated by the newly formed Australia Party, which had attacked the requirement for names and addresses on census forms, and by earlier publicity about anti-census campaigns overseas.

The public debate that took place in the 1980s about the Australia Card shows how easily the population's attitudes can be inflamed over privacy concerns. The debate probably served to raise public consciousness of privacy to a higher level than it had been previously.

More recently, the 1996 Census experience shows the ease with which privacy issues can be brought into the open. On 6 August 1996, census day, a UK based privacy activist appeared on the national 'Today Show' making a number of unfounded statements about privacy and the conduct of the Australian census. The message was clear, 'do not trust governments with your personal information'. Rebutting these claims was certainly assisted by the ABS being able to assure householders that census data would be kept confidential, that names and addresses would not be held on computers, and that the forms would be destroyed once the statistical information had been captured. Rebutting such claims would have been more difficult if the long standing practice of destroying census forms had just been changed.

Market research, undertaken to support the development of public relations strategies and media campaigns conducted prior to each census since 1981 (eg McNair 1982, Ellicot and Shanahan 1991, 1996), has consistently shown that privacy and confidentiality remain one of the significant issues that needs to be allayed in the conduct of each census. In addition, feedback from ABS survey interviewers and census collectors, and letters to Ministers, Members of Parliament, the media and the ABS all indicate that privacy and confidentiality of personal information is a continuing concern.

Perceptions about the capacity of computers to store and manipulate vast amounts of information, and fears about data matching, contribute to this increasing concern. Fears about potential future mis-use of census information also will fuel these concerns.

As the former Privacy Commissioner Mr O'Connor put it

" However strong the assurances initially given about confidentiality during the "closed access" period, the Bureau would inevitably come under severe pressure to make exceptions for other public interests." (Sydney Morning Herald, 12 July 1996).

Examples of past mis-use and pressure on the US Census Bureau over the years to release confidential census data given later in this submission (Section 7.3), would only heighten these concerns.

In each census in recent years privacy and confidentiality have emerged as key public concerns. This has been reflected in an increased demand on the part of householders for additional guarantees of privacy. Many people seek privacy envelopes, while others mail back their forms rather than giving them to the census collector, even though this is not an option offered by the ABS. The number of census forms returned through the mail has increased from 57,000 in 1986 to 140,000 in 1996.


To gain an up-to-date assessment of people's attitudes towards privacy and the census, the ABS commissioned AGB McNair to conduct a survey shortly after the August 1996 Census.

The survey showed that 89% of people felt that census forms should be destroyed to protect people's privacy and confidentiality.

Some of the other significant results of the research are:

Names on computer records are considered a threat to privacy

The majority of the general community aged 18 years and over is of the view that names and addresses should not be kept on computer records. Specifically,

  • 79% agreed that "Having names on computer records is a threat to privacy."
  • 76% agreed that "For future Censuses names should not be kept on computer records."

Future confidentiality of records is of concern to many people
  • 63% disagreed with the statement that "Future governments can be trusted to honour guarantees of confidentiality made today regarding Census forms ."
  • 73% disagreed that "Researchers should be given access to Census forms including names and addresses."
  • 67% disagreed that "Census forms should be stored for release in future for research purposes" while just under two thirds (63%) disagreed that they should be released after 100 years.

People are less likely to cooperate or provide quality data if census forms are retained
  • .34% said that they would be less likely to complete a census form if they were "kept for release after 100 years for research purposes ."
  • between one third and one half said that if census forms were released in future, the information they would supply would be less accurate.
  • the accuracy of data provided would suffer whether access to retained forms was provided immediately or after 100 years; 43% said that the information they would include on their census form would be less accurate if "Census forms were made available for research purposes immediately after the census"; 38% said that the information they would include on their census form would be less accurate if census forms were kept for release after 100 years.

Many disagree with keeping even limited information from census forms
  • 50% disagreed with keeping even limited information covering name, address, relationship and occupation from census forms for release in 100 years for research purposes

Most would not give a written authority for their census records to be kept
  • 88% said they would not sign an undertaking for their census form to be released to "anyone for any purpose."
  • 64% said they would not sign an undertaking for release of their form for family history researchers.
  • 57% said they would not sign an undertaking for their form to be released to medical researchers.

Risk of a negative media campaign - there is no second chance

A census is a rare event, involving as it does the whole nation at one point in time. It is very dependent for its success on the support of the general public.

While being very valuable, censuses are expensive - in 1996 a $148m exercise. There is no opportunity for a re-run should the census fail.

An important element in obtaining public support is a strong campaign throughout the media. To this end a great deal of preparation goes into a national awareness campaign for each census. and close attention is paid to managing media relations. During the critical period when the media become interested in census issues, virtually everything about the census is locked into place. It is the culmination of several years' planning and preparation. Time is very short and the ABS is likely to have difficulty getting its case heard against any clamour of concern if issues of personal privacy are raised.

As a result the census is vulnerable to unfavourable media publicity. Public anxiety can be aroused, or allayed, depending on how sensitive issues, such as privacy and confidentiality and the use of data by the government, are handled in the media. Stories about 'lost census forms' often receive front page, headline treatment and have led, for example in 1991, to a current affairs TV show warning viewers that their privacy was at grave risk.

As an article in the New Zealand Archivist, December 1992 put it:

" Anti-census campaigns hit the agencies like big storms, blowing and disturbing everything. Censuses make easy targets because unlike any other sort of personal information system they are widely publicised and affect every person simultaneously."

Australia's 1976 Census suffered from a negative media campaign when certain elements of the print media ran a campaign about the intrusiveness of an expanded census form (further details are provided in Attachment 5). Privacy lay at the heart of the concerns. Participation in the 1976 Census was lower than in previous censuses and response rates for individual questions were generally worse. Although the effects were not serious enough to invalidate the census results, they were enough to warn of the vulnerability of the census to such publicity. As a result, the ABS made sure in future censuses that privacy concerns were addressed in the development of the content of the form and in the field operations, and allaying those concerns was a key element in the public relations strategy.

Overseas experience paints an even more disturbing picture. In Germany and the Netherlands in the 1980s censuses had to be cancelled; this demonstrates what can happen if public confidence in privacy and confidentiality is destroyed, even in countries where public attitudes to government access to personal information are quite sanguine.

In these circumstances it is a great benefit to be able to present simple and clear messages through the media. The current policy of destroying census forms provides a clear, unequivocal message that the census is for statistical purposes only and census information will not be used for administrative or other purposes now or into the future. This allows ABS to counter any negative campaign about privacy with a simple statement that all identified personal information is destroyed.
Householders raise privacy worries with census collectors

Concerns about privacy in the Census, most often in the form of objections about having to provide names and addresses, are something that staff involved in collecting forms encounter regularly. For example, following the 1996 Census sixteen debriefing sessions were arranged, involving 156 collectors. In every session census collectors mentioned that confidentiality and privacy concerns were a key issue for the community.

Many people are concerned enough to telephone the census hotline

The Hotline Inquiry Service, set up to help answer householders' concerns during the 1996 Census, handled many calls dealing with privacy issues. Of the 250,000 inquiries answered by the hotline, approximately 13% raised privacy, confidentiality or the need for names and addresses as concerns.

The previous Privacy Commissioner consistently supported the destruction of census forms

ABS has made sure that census procedures that have implications for privacy are developed in full consultation with the Privacy Commissioner since the establishment of that Office.

The Privacy Commissioner's Office has consistently supported the practice of destroying Census forms as a step towards allaying public concern about privacy. The following are some of the comments of the Privacy Commissioner, and his Office, in recent years:
  • comment on 'ABS Views on Census Content and Procedures'

"I am inclined to the view that past practice (of destroying census forms) has contributed to support in the wider community for the Census and that any change would lead to damaging speculation about the role of the Census. Moreover, it seems to me as a matter of practicalities that the historian/genealogist case for accessing Census records does not have the same strength today in an era of many databases of community information, as compared to the position in times past, when alternative databases to the Census were rare." (April 1993)
  • comment on 'Nature and Content of the Census"

"I am pleased to note that the destruction of forms will again be authorised. I am also pleased to note that there will be no post-censal surveys using the Census to establish a sampling frame. I believe that ..... is likely to raise privacy concerns, as there may be pressure to retain identified forms for a longer period and there would be likely to be loss of public confidence in ABS assurances that identifying information is not retained ..." (May 1994)
  • comment on '1996 Census Information Booklet'

"It is also pleasing to note the references to the destruction policy of the ABS as a further assurance that identified personal information is not kept by the ABS." (June 1995)
  • letter to the Sydney Morning Herald, 12 July 1996

"I have consistently supported, on privacy grounds, the longstanding government policy which is that the census forms are destroyed after the processing is complete."

"The Bureau of Statistics fully complies with the privacy principle that personal information should only be used for the purpose for which it is obtained, and this has contributed to a high level of community trust. If the forms were retained, that trust would most likely be significantly diminished, leading to a reduced level of accuracy, and undermining the important objectives of the census. It would also, in my view, be an undesirable intrusion into the lives of all Australians. However strong the assurances initially given about confidentiality during the "closed access" period, the Bureau would inevitably come under severe pressure to make exceptions for other public interests. There would also be differing opinions about the length of time before the forms were made available."

"The aggregate census results are of course already a major and valuable research resource. Long term access to identifiable details would be an additional use at the margin. In my view, the present policy strikes the right balance of public interests."
  • address to the Advisory Council on Australian Archives, 1991

" The ABS is probably the only Commonwealth agency whose assurances of confidentiality mean what they say (ie. there are no exceptions to the general secrecy rule). The ABS appears to have an excellent record in relation to this assurance".

"It can be argued that the ABS is only able to maintain that position because of the fact that name-linked data is simply not available - if it was, then even if it were to be held by Archives, there would inevitably be increasing pressure for access on other public interest grounds - the Australian Law Reform Commission recommendation for medical research access before 75 years shows how a convincing case can always be made for exceptions to general rules." (Head of the Privacy Branch in the Commissioner's Office)

Requirements of the Privacy Act, 1983

A change in the policy on destruction of census forms would require ABS to change some of its current procedures to conform with the Information Privacy Principles of the Privacy Act, 1983:
  • householders would need to be told on the census form, or census information booklet, that identified records would be retained and fully informed of the purposes to which their information will be put.
  • ABS would have to provide access for people to check their census record and, if appropriate, to correct it.

Under the Census and Statistics Act, 1905 the only persons authorised to access census forms would be the householders or persons who actually filled in the forms. That could be one person or many in any particular household - the census information on a person may not have been provided by that person, but by another householder on his/her behalf.

The means of providing access, and of ensuring that access is restricted to those with the right to see particular records, would not be simple to formulate nor would they be cost-free. Also, it should be remembered that census forms cover all the people at a particular address on census night (which may include unrelated persons), and are stored by ABS according to their geographical location, not in alphabetical order, and certainly not in order of names. Questions of how to manage changes resulting from such access also arise.

International experience may not be relevant

The ABS agrees with the conclusion of the Australian Archives Review of 1991 Census form destruction that:

" the degree of public sensitivity attached to the census in other countries can give no sure indication of similar reactions in the Australian context, because of differing conditions, social attitudes and policies which make each country unique to itself."

Although there are undoubted similarities between Australia and Canada, UK and USA where census forms are retained, there are important differences between them in public attitudes to privacy and in the application of privacy laws. The differences are such that no assumption should be made that Australia could simply adopt procedures from one or other of those countries.

For example, Canada and the United States have Social Security or Social Insurance numbers which are required to be used for transactions with governments and business, and this is an accepted feature of daily life. In the United Kingdom, there is a continuing longitudinal study in which records from a sample of census respondents are matched with data from various administrative sources. It is difficult to envisage either of these situations being accepted without controversy in Australia, as was demonstrated by the Australia Card debate in the 1980's.

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