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They want your name and address in the August 9 Census is now compulsory – should you be worried about your privacy?


For the first time since this snapshot of our nation began in 1911, the Census won’t be anonymous. Instead, the Australian Bureau of Statistics is collecting your personal details for a “richer and dynamic statistical picture”.

Previously, you could opt in or out to give your name and address. This new move has met with opposition from privacy and civil liberties groups concerned about how the data will be used and stored.

ABS says ‘get online on August 9’

It’s also the first year you won’t get a knock at the door, with the five-yearly survey going fully digital.

It will save millions of dollars in printing and staff, but will also see the data collected kept for four years, up from the current 18 months.

The ABS first announced the move to keep names and addresses in an ambiguously-titled press release ‘ABS response to Privacy Impact Assessment’ last December.

The decision was made after they conducted their own Privacy Impact Assessment which judged the risk to privacy to be low.

The release says the data will only be released in an “anonymised version” and “used for projects approved by a senior-level committee.”

The Bureau has also promised the information will be kept in a separate database for security and destroyed in August 2020. But if that is the case, why have it at all?

Count me in? Maybe not

While the Census data is a valuable resource to the government agencies and researchers planning our future, it’s also attractive to hackers and others who could gain unauthorised access.

In recent years, there have been a number of well-publicised data breaches for private companies such as Ashley Madison and Kmart as well as our own Government.

Bill McLennan, a former statistician for the Bureau who was involved in the re-writing of the Census and Statistics Act in the early 1980s, has come out with his own blunt statement: “The ABS doesn’t have the authority to collect ‘name’ in the 2016 Census on a compulsory basis.”

He has criticised the decision not to consult the public or privacy advocates, saying the change will lead to people either boycotting the survey or providing wrong information which could impact on the accuracy of the data.

Fines apply

So can the ABS give out your personal details? There is a section in the Act that prevents “personal or domestic” information being released if it’s likely to identify a person. But that doesn’t mean the government can’t change the regulations down the track to allow the information to be given out to third parties.

And if you think you can just refuse or fail to answer questions, you’re in for a shock.

While the maximum penalty is $180, not filling in a few sections will force the ABS to send you follow-up instructions, which will blow out this penalty considerably. Giving the wrong information will also result in a hefty fine.

There is one sure-fire way to avoid doing the Census though – you’re not required to complete the form if you are overseas and inform the ABS first. Perfect excuse for a holiday?



  • The Census is on Tuesday, August 9.
  • From August 1, you should receive a letter from the ABS with a 12-digit Census Login and instructions for filling in the form online.
  • The ABS expects over 15 million people to fill in the form online, up from just 33 per cent in 2011.
  • Want to order a paper form? You’ll need to request one by calling 1300 820 275 with your login number.
  • In some places, households will get a paper form upfront, with the option to complete it online.

Lauren is a journalist for, agedcare101 and The Donaldson Sisters. Growing up in a big family in small town communities, she has always had a love for the written word, joining her local library at the age of six months. With over eight years' experience in writing and editing, she is a keen follower of news and current affairs with a nose for a good story.

Discussion2 Comments

    • There’s a section in the Census and Statistics Act that prevents the ABS giving out “personal or domestic” information being released if it’s likely to identify a person. As stated in the story though, it doesn’t stop the regulations from being changed later so the information can be supplied to third parties. Hopefully this won’t be the case here.

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