Census 2016: NSW Privacy Commissioner concerned over ‘range of risks’

NSW’s Privacy Commissioner has blown the whistle on a “range of risks’’ over radical plans to store Australians’ names and addresses in a government database after next week’s Census.

“From a risk-management perspective, it’s hard not to be concerned about the proposed changes,’’ commissioner Elizabeth Coombs said yesterday.

“There are a range of risks and it’s not just the risk of misuse. The Census is a valuable information and data source.’’

In a controversial change, the Australian Bureau of Statistics said it will store the names of 24 million Australians in a database after Census night on August 9.

Names and addresses will provide a “richer and dynamic statistical picture of Australia through the integration of Census data with other survey and administrative data.”

The Census asks residents personal information such as religion, racial background, how much they earn and their relationship with other people in their house on Census night.

For more than a century, the ABS has destroyed names and addresses unless the person filling out the form consents to the information being kept by the National Archives and made public after 99 years.

The ABS has identified a “small number of potential risks to personal privacy’’ as a result of retaining people’s names and addresses. It lists the “very low” risks as unauthorised access by ABS staff, hacking by outsiders, an IT systems crash and “function creep’’ of governments using the names for other purposes.

Documents released under Freedom of Information laws in 2013 reveal the ABS was targeted by hackers trying to access market-sensitive information before its public release.

The ABS insists names and addresses will be stored separately from answers to questions.

Its privacy impact assessment says Census data could be cross-referenced with education and health data to “help answer questions’’.

Questions include: “What factors matter for targeting health services for those most in need, including mental health services?’’

“What are the outcomes for individuals and families who receive assistance from a range of social services — childcare, housing and homelessness services, child protection services, disability services, etc?’’

Australians risk fines if they fail to honestly answer all questions in the Census, which is held every five years.

Government departments rely on accurate Census data to decide where to build schools and hospitals, and plan for ­future housing and transport infrastructure.

Dr Coombs said Australians could lie on their Census forms due to fears their data might be misused. The ABS did not answer questions from The Daily Telegraph about why it needs to retain names, but provided links to its website.


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