Census and Statistics Act 1905 (Cth)

16.110 The Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS) conducts a census of population and housing every five years in accordance with the Census and Statistics Act 1905 (Cth).[151] The census is regarded as the most important source of statistical information in Australia. The Privacy Act applies the IPPs to personal information collected as part of the census.[152] The Census and Statistics Act also contains a number of provisions, including secrecy provisions, directed to protecting information collected as part of the census.[153]

16.111 Before the 2001 Census, all name-identified information from past censuses was destroyed on completion of statistical processing.[154] In 2000, the Australian Government introduced legislation that provided for the retention of census data.[155] This legislation was put in place for the 2001 Census on a trial basis. The Census Information Legislation Amendment Act 2006 (Cth) amended the Census and Statistics Act to ensure that, subject to the household’s consent, name-identified information collected in the 2006 Census, and all subsequent censuses would be stored by the National Archives of Australia (National Archives) in order to preserve it for release for research after a closed access period of 99 years.[156]

16.112 Another recent development is the Census Data Enhancement (CDE) project, the primary objective of which is to enhance the value of the census by combining it with future census data and, possibly, other datasets held by the ABS.[157] The central feature of this project would have been the Statistical Longitudinal Census Dataset (SLCD), involving all respondents to any census. Due to privacy concerns raised in submissions to the Senate Legal and Constitutional References Committee,[158] and a PIA[159]—for example, the risk that in the future such a rich dataset may be used for administrative and other non-statistical uses—the CDE proposal was substantially modified.[160] The SLCD will now be based on a 5% sample of the population, which in the ABS’s view, will make it unsuitable for such other uses.[161]

16.113 The ALRC considered in DP 72 whether personal information collected pursuant to the Census and Statistics Act was protected adequately.[162] While the ABS submitted that protection was adequate,[163] other stakeholders noted concerns held by some individuals in the community—for example, relating to the amount of detail collected for household surveys and whether some of the questions in the census are unnecessarily intrusive.[164] The need for confidentiality was linked to the public interest in truthful, and therefore reliable, census responses.[165]

16.114 In DP 72, the ALRC did not make a proposal in relation to the Census and Statistics Act. The OPC submitted in response to DP 72, however, that in conducting future population and housing censuses, the ABS should consider whether greater emphasis should, or could, be placed on explaining administrative and other measures that protect privacy and which address the specific types of concerns raised by the community with the OPC.[166]

ALRC’s view

16.115 The ALRC does not make a recommendation in relation to the operation and administration of the Census and Statistics Act. The information contained in name-identified census records is a valuable source for historians, historical sociologists and other researchers; and is protected adequately under the current regime.[167]

16.116 The ALRC notes that the collection and retention of name-identified information only is to occur with the consent of the individual.[168] This is consistent with the current IPPs and the model UPPs. Further, the sensitivity of much personal information has diminished after 99 years. The legislated closed period of 99 years is a recognition of this fact.

16.117 The retention of records by the National Archives for a period of 99 years is consistent with IPP 4 (Storage and Security of Personal Information) and UPP 8 (Data Security). The protection provided by the Archives Act 1983 (Cth) is robust and beyond that accorded to other personal information.[169] During the time it is in the closed period, the retained name-identified information is expressly excluded from provisions for special access under s 56 of the Archives Act or by disclosure by National Archives staff, including to a court or tribunal.[170]

16.118 In relation to the SLCD, the ALRC acknowledges the serious concerns about the privacy risks associated with the development of a rich longitudinal dataset that relates to the entire Australian population. The ALRC notes the concerns of stakeholders that such a dataset might be too attractive for future non-statistical or administrative uses. The ALRC agrees with the ABS that the modified proposal for the SLCD to be based on a 5% sample of the population, augmented at each census with a further 5% sample of people who have been born in, or migrated to, Australia since the preceding census, will minimise the usefulness of the dataset much less attractive for other uses, including administrative and other non-statistical uses.

16.119 The ALRC acknowledges the privacy concerns that some members of the public have about the census. The ALRC is satisfied that the legislative framework within which the ABS operates and conducts the census adequately protects personal information. The ABS is subject to the Privacy Act as well as confidentiality provisions under the Census and Statistics Act. Names and addresses are not retained for longer than the period required for census processing, and are used only in relation to census processing and for ABS quality studies. Names and addresses are destroyed at the end of census processing.[171]

16.120 Further, various administrative arrangements for the collection of census data are designed to protect the privacy of individuals participating in the census. For example, householders who do not wish other members of the household to see their information, may request a personal census form. Those who are concerned about the census collector seeing the form can ask for a privacy envelope or can complete the census form online. Householders who still have concerns can ask the census collector for a reply-paid ‘mailback’ envelope to post their completed form directly to the ABS.[172]

16.121 The ALRC agrees with the OPC’s view, however, that the ABS may alleviate public concern about perceived privacy issues associated with the use of census data by placing greater emphasis on explaining administrative and other measures that protect privacy when conducting future population and housing censuses.

[151]Census and Statistics Act 1905 (Cth) s 8.

[152] Under the Privacy Act, personal information collected by the ABS for a census is collected for a lawful purpose directly related to a function or activity of the ABS and is necessary and directly related to that purpose: Privacy Act 1988 (Cth) s 14, IPP 1.1.

[153]Census and Statistics Act 1905 (Cth) ss 7, 8A, 13, 19, 19A, and 19B. For example, s 19A provides that the Australian Statistician or an ABS officer must not at any time, during the period of 99 years from the day for a census, divulge or be required to divulge information contained in a census form to an agency, a court or a tribunal.

[154]Explanatory Memorandum, Census Information Legislation Amendment Bill 2000 (Cth), 2.

[155] Census Information Legislation Amendment Act 2000 (Cth).

[156] Explanatory Memorandum, Census Information Legislation Amendment Bill 2006 (Cth), 2. In 2001, 52% of Australians gave consent to have their name-identified information released after 99 years. For 2006, the participation rate was 56.1%: Australian Bureau of Statistics, ‘Retention Facts and Figures (the Census Time Capsule)’ (Press Release, 27 June 2007).

[157] Australian Bureau of Statistics, 2006 Census: Census Data Enhancement <www.abs.gov.au> at 6 May 2008. A Discussion Paper on the project was released in April 2005: Australian Bureau of Statistics, Enhancing the Population Census: Developing a Longitudinal View (2005).

[158] See also Parliament of Australia—Senate Legal and Constitutional References Committee, The Real Big Brother: Inquiry into the Privacy Act 1988 (2005), [5.113]–[5.116].

[159] Pacific Privacy Consulting, Census Enhancement Project: Privacy Impact Assessment Report for Australian Bureau of Statistics (2005).

[160] Australian Bureau of Statistics, ‘ABS Develops a New View of Records Across Successive Censuses’ (Press Release, 18 August 2005).

[161] See Australian Bureau of Statistics, ‘Methodological News: Summary—Updates on the Census Data Enhancement Project’ (Press Release, 18 December 2007).

[162] Australian Law Reform Commission, Review of Australian Privacy Law, DP 72 (2007), [13.50]–[13.58]. See also Australian Law Reform Commission, Review of Privacy, IP 31 (2006), Question 7–6(i).

[163]Australian Bureau of Statistics, Submission PR 96, 15 January 2007.

[164]Office of the Privacy Commissioner, Submission PR 215, 28 February 2007. See also Parliament of Australia—House of Representatives Legal and Constitutional Affairs Committee, Saving Our Census and Preserving Our History (1998), [4.10]–[4.14].

[165] Australian Privacy Foundation, Submission PR 167, 2 February 2007.

[166] Office of the Privacy Commissioner, Submission PR 499, 20 December 2007.

[167] In the late 1970s, the ALRC conducted an inquiry into privacy issues and the census: Australian Law Reform Commission, Privacy and the Census, ALRC 12 (1979), x–xvi. A number of these recommendations have been implemented. See, eg, Census Information Legislation Amendment Act 2000 (Cth).

[168]Census and Statistics Act 1905 (Cth) s 8A.

[169] National Archives of Australia, Submission PR 199, 20 February 2007.

[170]Archives Act 1983 (Cth) ss 22B, 30A.

[171]D Trewin (Australian Statistician), ‘Census Data Enhancement Project—Statement of Intention’ (Press Release, 18 August 2005).

[172]Australian Bureau of Statistics, 2006 Census: Privacy and Confidentiality <www.abs.gov.au> at 6 May 2008.