#CensusFail is a failure to listen to the experts

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(Image via canningspurple.com.au)

Minister McCormack and his lame, “no worse than Facebook” reassurances was believed and disseminated thoroughly by media — rather than legitimate concerns from experts in this field.​ ~ Noely Neate

AUSTRALIA just had a massive jump in IT jargon, well, sort of.

"DDoS" is now a thing you hear punters inserting into a conversation. So are "servers", "hacks", "VPNs" and more. The problem is, most don’t actually really understand what they are saying. As is often the case when it comes to the technical, a little bit of knowledge is dangerous.

But you know what? You don’t need to understand it all.

Yes, we are in a so-called “digital” era, but the point is, do you know exactly how your car works, all the intimate details of how it is built, what materials and technology are used, all the safety parameters, engineering, designing and so on? In general, the answer would be no. It is a tool. 

If our car has a general problem, we go to the mechanic. We don’t sit back, study, try to figure it all out for ourselves — that is what the mechanic is for. If the problem is something specific to do with the air conditioning, wheels, power steering or whatever, well you normally go along to one of those people who handle that specific type of issue.

Information technology (IT) is pretty much the same. Like any industry there are many disciplines and just because you use a phone, computer, tablet and so on, does not mean you need to know exactly how it works down to the technical detail. What you do need to do, though, is listen to experts.

If an IT expert I respect says, "Holy Shit, keeping personal identifiers with linkage keys on servers with security supplied by the lowest government bidder is basically heroin to hackers and data junkies ...", well, I'm going to take their word for it.

Also, as child of the Joh Bjelke-Petersen years in Queensland, who lives by the public policy rule of What would Joh have done with this? if a Privacy expert I respect advises caution, again, I'm going to take their word for it.

When many – myself included – started squealing about the privacy and security issues raised by retaining names in the 2016 Census, our legitimate concerns were rubbished and, in fact, actually treated by both many segments in media and McCormack and Kalisch as causing a storm in a tea cup, pretty much tin foil nutters. Here is where my problem lies.

Many who were calling for the names to be dropped totally were experts in their field – be it privacy or information security – yet for many, Minister McCormack and his lame, “no worse than Facebook” reassurances were believed and disseminated thoroughly by media — rather than believing the legitimate concerns from the experts in this field.

The nation was expected to be reassured in regard to IT and privacy concerns from a politician. Not only a politician but a man who’s previous claim to fame is that of being an editor of a daily newspaper in Wagga Wagga. I don’t know about you but if I have a problem with my car, I go to a mechanic, not the editor of the local rag.

IT is complicated

This is the problem. IT is complicated. I’m married to a software developer and trying to translate what he is talking about into common English that a client can understand, can be bloody hard. I'm lucky since as a user, I can hit him up many times, starting with: "You can repeat the same acronyms as many times as you like but I still don't get it" until we can finally reach a point where I can comprehend the issue.

The point is, he is good at what he does and you can’t have that sort of focus and knowledge and expect the the same level of communication skills. This is where punters get caught. As soon as IT matters are raised and lingo tossed around, their eyes glaze over and they go in one of two directions.

They have a little bit of knowledge, confusing the issue more, or, as is human nature, no-one likes to feel stupid, so they just skip the whole IT portion of a debate and cling to the bit they know such as,

You give more information to Facebook ...

McCormack dismissed concerns, saying:

"Anybody with a supermarket loyalty card, anybody who does tap-and-go, anybody who buys things online, they provide more information indeed probably to what is available to ABS staff," he said.

In simple terms, the Facebook, Loyalty Card and Twitter analogy was a bullshit analogy. Last time I looked you can’t just "unfollow" the census, you can’t get the shits with the census changes, make a pretty statement and just delete your census account.

I’m not going to go into the technicalities as to why retaining our names is so dangerous for future dataset matching because in reality, the average person does not need to know all of that. What they do need to know is that experts in this area are very worried about it on many levels for a number of privacy and security reasons. Unlike pollies, they have nothing to personally gain from raising these concerns so loudly.

Australians are now on edge and suspect about an institution that we have always been pretty proud of and that is sad. The census and the data available to you, me, acadamics, planners and governments really is invaluable in many cases. Working in the community IT sector has meant I have used this information many times. In fact, there is a reason I put government last in my list of users. 

Personally, regardless of all the hand-wringing about how schools won’t be built if we don’t fill it out – it may be used to justify essential infrastructure or it may be more electoral pork barrelling and donor interests – census information is important and it is really sad to see such an important resource reduced to a joke. If anyone thinks the data they will finally get won’t be rubbish, well, I’ve got a bridge to sell.

This is now the third major IT related issue in recent years

  • The first was the NBN, where experts said it was being decimated and would hurt us, yet were mocked. Three years later we now have Chambers of Commerce all over the nation whining about losing business, productivity and so on due to shitty internet. Gee if only someone had told them this would happen, Oh wait...
  • The data retention fiasco — another massive over-reach reduced to a ridiculous feel-good, you will be safer bullshit meme. This has not impacted – yet – but give it time, it will. And it will be dangerous with many unintended consequences which will have me saying in the future, I told you so!
  • Now we have #CensusFail.

What all three have in common is that experts in IT warned but no-one listened.

I get that IT is not sexy, it is complicated, messy and downright confusing. I get that many in the industry at the height of their game just don’t really speak English as you and I know it. Though to be frank, it is rare if they do, in fact, it is probably why there are so many charlatans in the industry, the people who call themselves IT professionals but in the vast majority of cases they are salesmen.

Please people, I beg of you. There will be more of these crossover issues in future — many many more. Public policy will be impacted by our Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull's favourite "agile and innovative" tech sector more and more and you need to start trusting the experts.

Media will rarely interview real experts in this field as, to be quite frank, they are not good talent in general and therefore not a ratings winner. Politicians, in many cases, also will not listen to IT experts as they are the ultimate "tl;dr" when they want a nice three word slogan. So it is up the punters to get smarter.

Listen to the experts, on everything. If you are unsure get a consensus from those around you as to who the "authority" actually is on subjects, whether it be IT, privacy, monetary matters, environmental (climate change, Barrier Reef), human rights (Manus and Nauru, Indigenous, LGBTIQ). We have a habit in this nation of politicians dissing experts in a particular area and media not calling it out.

You don’t have to understand exactly what they are saying, in fact, you probably never will totally get your mind around the detail but we will have a much better future if you heed the opinion of a "real" expert with nothing to gain rather than the politician or the so-called "expert" the government is paying and trots out to bamboozle you with bullshit.

You can read more from Noely Neate on her blog YaThink? or follow her on Twitter @YaThinkN.

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