We Asked an Expert What Would Happen if Australia Got Together to Boycott the Census

We could all just "go camping" or, apparently, just not be home because we're at an all-night Tuesday rave.
August 9, 2016, 12:00am

The general consensus on the 2016 Census is that it's a big old mess. Trouble began late last year when the Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS) announced that, for the first time ever, the Census won't destroy the names and addresses of citizens who have filled it out. And while the ABS tried to sneak the change in just days before Christmas—prime time for unpopular policy changes flying under the radar—privacy groups noticed.

The Bureau copped tonnes of criticism for its decision to go with an online Census instead of the traditional paper form too, leading to the real risk of attack from hackers. All of this has been compounded by the fact this potentially vulnerable data will now be personalised, which means it could be traced back to individual citizens by their names and addresses.

As #CensusFail has heated up there have been calls for mass boycotts over these privacy concerns. Senators Scott Ludlam, Janet Rice, Sarah Hanson-Young, Nick Xenophon and Jacqui Lambie have all announced they will refuse to give their names when they fill the census out, despite facing fines of $180 per day. So should we all "go camping" Tuesday night? VICE called up David Vaile, vice chair of the Australian Privacy Foundation, to find out.

VICE: David, it seems like a lot of people are pissed off about the Census. Here's my question: if every single person in Australia dodges it, they can't possibly prosecute us all, right?
David Vaile: Yes, if there was mass civil disobedience—which they are essentially inviting—it would be incredibly difficult. It seems like the number of prosecutions is normally tiny, under 100 people. The number of notices given is also quite small, given you're talking 20 million people being involved. So you're unlikely to be given a notice or be prosecuted, judging by the past.

So you can just leave your house on Census night?
I've definitely heard people talking about just not being anywhere that counts as a "place of residence," like going camping. Or there's also an idea where you can have a big all-night party at a place where there are no residents. It becomes much more difficult to follow that kind of thing up if a lot of people do it at once.

If you're not partial to an all-night Tuesday rave, can you just not answer the door when the Census collector comes by your house?
The poor old Census collectors will be under incredible pressure. They're casual, temporary workers who won't have been told anything about what to expect. It's a failure of the ABS to put in a casual workforce who are in no position to give anyone credible assurances about what's going on. What I'd suggest is to be nice to those people if you engage at all—if people do get fined, it's often if they've been aggressive or threatened the collectors. And that's understandable, that the courts are much less likely to be comfortable with that.

I guess you can't deny that the Census itself is important though. Do we have a good enough reason to boycott it?
There's no doubt the Census data, properly handled, is an incredible asset. But it relies on a continuing trust and confidence from the population to cooperate with it, as well as criminal sanctions for noncompliance. For trust to be justified you need to be trustworthy, because otherwise if you get someone to trust you when you're not trustworthy then that's a scam, it's fraud.

So why is this year's Census so much less trustworthy than before?
The thing that's different is just the decision to retain names and addresses. In the past they used name and address essentially to collect forms. So for administrative purposes only.

Why have they changed that this year?
We've been leading up to this for a while. Through incrementalism—otherwise called the boiling frog approach—you gradually, gradually take steps to erode rights while trying not to raise alarm or interest. It's a technique that was probably settled on decades ago, around the time of the introduction of the Australia Card.

But what's the big problem with the ABS keeping our names and addresses anyway? Those things are on tax forms, the electoral role…
Well, a census by definition is meant to be an anonymous snapshot of a population, but it's now becoming a longitudinal study. A long term dossier of information that is retained. That's a big change. They did have a plan to do something like this in 2006 but the result of the independent Privacy Impact Assessment was to abandon that plan. They reconsidered it again in 2011 and the statistician said no again, considering it too risky.

Surely the government consulted people before implementing these new measures?
Well, they consulted themselves. It's just an internal government agency that said this is okay—they refused to accept independent advice. They're unwilling to answer questions about what's happening with the data, too. Which means that although we know that names and addresses are linked to information, we simply don't know what the re-identification risk is.

There's another big change with the Census this year that people aren't happy about: it's going online. Should we be worried about this too?
For one thing, it's much harder to decline to answer [online] or leave something blank. You don't get the choice as you would on paper. But there are also security concerns. An investigation of source code on the site indicates it's run by a subsidiary of IBM, which is based in the United States. So the ABS might not even be controlling the data. I invite you to try and find out where this data is hosted! On a cloud? We don't know, it could be hosted literally anywhere.

"An investigation of source code on the site indicates it's run by a subsidiary of IBM, which is based in the United States. So the ABS might not even be controlling the data."

So are you saying the Census could be vulnerable to hackers?
Because of the ubiquity of hacking you'd have to assume that the intruder only has to find the tiniest hairline crack in the security to get in. It might not be within hours, it could be within days or weeks or months or years. You just can't guarantee it won't happen. It is almost certain that at least one person will try to get in. Claims otherwise aren't really credible.

Okay, so with the risk of hacks, the privacy concerns, and everything else should we all just boycott the Census?
Well I'm in a terrible position because I'm not willing to advocate for a boycott. What we've tried to do is ask the government to put off the Census and reconsider, not retain names and addresses how they're planning to, or if they do continue with it that they don't prosecute anyone who doesn't complete it.

Speaking of prosecuting, if you're too scared to boycott the Census because you're convinced you'll be the first person ever jailed over it (me) is there anything you can do?
I'd strongly suggest you try and get a paper form, if you can. That's protection if you don't trust their IT security, and if you want to leave sections blank. Unfortunately, the ABS haven't planned for enough phone capacity. So you could be ringing for days. I'd also encourage people who are concerned to contact their local MP, particularly if they can't get a paper form.

For more anxiety about government prosecutions, follow Kat on Twitter.