Human rights

Middle finger for the Census 2016

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Due to personal experience of how such data can be obtained for purposes other than statistical, Tony Magrathea says: 'Middle finger for the 2016 Census.'

A BIG KERFUFFLE about the census this year — the Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS) wants to keep our names and addresses for four years with no real reason or excuse as to why they want to do this.

A few decades and a half ago, I worked with the ABS in their Darwin office and later in head office in Canberra. In Darwin, I was co-opted into selling the census on CD – a new you-beaut fandangled thingy – and I was asked because I knew how to turn on a computer.

One of the first customers was the local Army Intelligence. They came in, demanded a secure room, scanned it for any bugs and we got to talking. They wanted the names and addresses of every Muslim in Darwin and, if possible, Christians who may be linked to East Timor.

They were hugely disappointed and I don't think they actually believed me when I told them we don't have the names and addresses and, even if we did, we could not give them to them or anyone else. Way back then, the names and addresses were destroyed very early after the census and, in a small office like Darwin, I doubt they lasted much more than a few weeks after all the data was collated.

More incredulity when I explained to the Army Intelligence people the best we could do was to give them the number of Muslims living in basically a neighbourhood area of about 200 households. The biggest number found in Darwin was two households that were Muslim in a particular area. When I then explained there is a statistical function which may randomise such small numbers they gave up.

When I moved to Canberra, I got together with a few others and pressured more senior management in considering the UK census way of doing things — keeping names and addresses for 100 years. The data is embargoed and protected by law. No one can get access to the census data before the 100 years is up.

The ABS relented and made capture for 100 years as an opt-in option for those who think genealogy is a worthwhile study in future censuses. And now they want retention for four years?

My memory of the oxymoronic Army Intelligence means I will never allow four year retention of my data and my genealogy purism is out the window. I am certain if we had the names and addresses way back then, the Army Intelligence would have done everything they could to get the data.

Don't put your name on the form, the address is sadly already there on the label. Middle finger for the 2016 Census. I will be using no religion and I recommend everyone do the same. I am not too many generations from World War II. I know what happened in Cambodia and Rwanda is a recent memory.

You can read more by Tony Magrathea on his blog or follow him on Twitter @dickiebeachholdie.

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