Privacy Matters: A follow-up of the Census failure

Australia’s recent attempt of a national Census has evoked concerns regarding privacy and trust in both business and government. As previously discussed, controversy surfaced prior to the Census date due to changes in how long Census information was stored and used. Privacy advocates, such as the NSW Council for Civil Liberties President Stephen Banks stated, “We now have some politicians calling for discriminatory action against people of a particular faith… it wouldn’t be unreasonable for them to think twice [about honestly conducting the Census]” (Burke 2016). A similar sentiment was concurred by Australian Privacy Foundation vice-chair David Vaile, “[The Census] has gone from a valuable anonymous snapshot to an identifiable longitudinal dossier on Australians, with technology now capable of cross-matching and analysing people’s private information” (Burke 2016).

These concerns were dismissed by Michael McCormack, Minister for Small Business and Census head, claiming that the census is “No worse than Facebook” in tracking and storing private data. This is a valid point, especially considering 71 Australia schools were recently involved in teen nude-sharing, whereby students were publicly posting and exchanging sexual images of their classmates over social media.

So amongst privacy and trust concerns, where does Australia exactly stand? According to the Edelman Trust Barometer, Australia is experiencing “unprecedented signals of uncertainty” (Riches 2015). The 2015 and 2016 results reveal that both the general and mass population of Australians show a general distrust for the government and businesses.


Edelman global trust

Mass and General Population of Australia distrust the government. (Edelman 2015)


From 2014 to 2015, Australia’s trust in their own government dropped from 56% to 49%, which following the 2014 election, 75% of people believed the government “fails to contribute to the greater good” (Edelman 2015). Meanwhile, trust in business likewise dropped from 59% to 48% (Edelman 2015). Despite this, Australians have showed a steady increase of trust and certainty in both social media and online search engines (Edelman 2015). Given the trends within these results,  Australians substantially trust their social media over the government.

As Karl Stefanovic once said to our former Prime Minister, “No one’s buying what you’re selling”.

In light of the Census failure, the federal government is undoubtedly in damage control, with PM Malcolm Turnbull blaming IBM for the site’s takedown. McCormack’s previous statements to trust in the government and the ‘impenetrable’ ABS have fallen on a relatively distrustful business. IBM, which has secured $2.4 billion in federal government contracts, was paid $9.6 million to host the census. However, it’s history with government departments hasn’t always been one of unrequited trust. IBM is currently foregoing a 3-year ban with the Queensland State Government following a commission of inquiry into the $1.25 billion payroll failure. This inquiry revealed that a number of IBM employees were conducting “unethical transgressions”. It’s almost humorous for Michael McCormack and the federal government to ask Australians to trust a business with the protection of their private data, when government departments themselves demonstrate a lack of trust.

If the Census failure has taught us anything, it’s that concerns regarding privacy, data storage and cyber-security are becoming a prominent issue in Australia during a period of distrust for both government and business. Whilst advocates and agencies may act to intervene in programs such as the Census in facilitating these concerns and informing the public, general distrust and uncertainty have caused Australians to question the status quo or at least remain mindful when it comes to media and privacy.


Burke, K 2016, ‘Census 2016: changes an “abuse” of public’s trust’, Daily Telegraph, July 23.

‘Edelman Trust Barometer 2015 Annual Global Study: Australia’, 2015, Edelman, Online Document, <;.

Foye, B 2016, ‘IBM breaks silence on Census fail’, CRN, August 12, <;.

Glance, D 2016, ‘As census failure blame points at IBM, why we shouldn’t be surprised by its failings’, The Conversation, August 17, <;.

Riches, T 2015, ‘Trust in Australia Declines as Broken Election Promises, Economic Challenges, and Rapid Innovation and Change within Business Drive Uncertainty’, Edelman, online document, <;.

Foye, B 2016, ‘IBM breaks silence on Census fail’, CRN, August 12, <;.

Glance, D 2016, ‘As census failure blame points at IBM, why we shouldn’t be surprised by its failings’, The Conversation, August 17, <;.


‘Trust Index: World’, 2015, Edelman, Online Document, <;.



The 2016 Australian Census: privacy matters and privacy matters.

Leading up to Tuesday, August 9, the 2016 Australian Census has experienced a flurry of controversy regarding privacy concerns and the question regarding religion.

SA senator Nick Xenophon, leader of the Nick Xenophon Team political party and major player in the recent election voiced concerns regarding the changes to private information, whereby the Australian Bureau of Statistics extended the period of maintaining Australian names and addresses from 18 months to four years. These concerns were likewise founded by The Australian Privacy Foundation, which urged the ABS to stop using Australian names and locations for data analysis, claiming, “We’ve now since found out they’re not being deleted at all, they’re being stored and made into unique identifiers” (Longbottom 2016).

Even former head of the ABS, Bill McLennan spoke of this year’s census as a severe breach of Australian’s privacy, labelling the changes as “the most significant invasion of privacy ever perpetrated” by the ABS (3AW 2016).

These claims have been refuted by Michael McCormack, Minister for Small Business and responsible for the Census. McCormack questioned those projecting privacy concerns, claiming that such individuals are willing to allow social media organisations such as Facebook and Twitter to track and record their private data, followed by claiming, “The ABS has never had a privacy breach, security breach on an ABS census, never” (Doran 2016).

Well, until last night. As most Australians are led to believe, the ABS was subject to a four separate ‘denial of service’ (DoS) attacks, resulting in the forced shutdown of the ABS site at 7:30pm. Early this morning McCormack reassured that the DoS attacks weren’t in fact an “attack” or “hack” but rather an “attempt to frustrate” the nation-wide survey. And it surely did “frustrate”.

There is, however, some skepticism whether the attacks actually occurred. Despite claims that the ABS site was ready to handle the mass amount of Australians accessing the online survey, RMIT internet security expert, Mark Gregory, questioned whether the attacks actually occurred, or if it was a result of too many Australians attempting to access the site for the survey.

This is a considerable argument, as this year was the first year the census was to be completed online nation-wide, and as such the ABS site could have simply been overwhelmed by the amount of Australians accessing it at once. This is supported by information provided by the Digital Attack Map, a live data visualisation of DoS attacks worldwide showed no record of data intrusion at the time.

In light of the entire issue regarding privacy concerns and the failing of the ABS site to combat the supposed DoS attacks, I was surprised to find that the Census did not include a question regarding sexuality or for same-sex couples. Considering the census is a key tool for data collection to shape policy making within both the public and private sector, it utterly failed to represent people of the LGBTIQ+ community, whilst also assuming that children have both a mother and father, and subsequently not a child of same-sex parents.

Such exclusivity is clearly a proponent of the current Liberal Party status quo, highlighted by their stance on gay marriage – a key issue of the recent election. Furthermore, it is interesting that the minister heading the Census, Michael McCormack, has been a vocal opponent of marriage equality. Furthermore, as former editor of the Daily Advertiser, McCormack wrote an editorial in May 1993 claiming homosexuals were “responsible for the greatest medical dilemma known to man – AIDS” (Glover 2010).


Doran, M 2016, ‘Census 2016: Nick Xenophon to withhold name over privacy concerns’, ABC News Online, 8 August, <;.

Longbottom, J 2016, ‘Census 2016: Privacy advocates say people’s names should not be retained’, ABC News Online, 22 July, <;.

Glover, B 2010, ‘Homophobic slurs haunt McCormack’, Daily Advertiser, 12 August, <;.

3AW 2010, ‘Former ABS boss Bill McLennan has serious privacy concerns about Census’, August 9, <;.