Do you want the Bureau of Statistics keeping your personal data forever?

Posted: March 15, 2016 in Uncategorized
Tags: , , , ,

This one slipped right past me at the time. Last December the Australian Bureau of Statistics  confirmed that it shall in future be retaining all names and address from each Census, for further, wider use. In support of this, the ABS conducted a “Privacy Impact Assessment” which may be found here. This makes for interesting reading of a sort, as part of it is a complete load of bullshit, a seemingly deliberate fabrication.

Past Australian Statisticians fought hard against such moves with a particular concern that any attempt to retain personal identifiers, even retention that would not be released until all contributors were deceased, would reduce public trust and therefore less preparedness to participate.

I would love to know exactly who conducted this ‘Assessment’ as I very much would like to challenge the following finding :

4.4. RISK: Reduction in participation levels in ABS collections due to loss of public trust

Likelihood: Very low

Hmmm had all those past Statisticians been worried about nothing? It seems so.

Or does it?

Let us look at exactly how the ABS assessed the public reaction to the proposal.

According to the Assessment, the entire ABS public consultancy program was:

Sought feedback from the public through publication of a Media Release and a Statement of Intent to conduct a Privacy Impact Assessment.

OK time to get fair dinkum. How many people knew about this? Answer: Sweet Fanny Adams. Let’s get even more fair dinkum – how many individual people make a point of studying every single ABS media release buried on their website, on the off-chance they may might be doing something of concern? A damn sight fewer than Fanny Adams! Was it even remotely reasonable for the ABS to expect a meaningful number of Australians would even see this material on their website? A very simple answer to the last: NO!

The true measure of success is in how many individual submissions the ABS received in response to the feedback program. So, quietly buried within the ABS documentation is that crucial number.


That is three individual people. Not three groups, not three organisations, but three individual people in a nation of some 24 million. Are we all really that apathetic or has it simply been pushed by us in such a rubbish manner that it pretty much ensured hardly anyone would even know about the submissions? I have absolutely no doubt that it was the latter.

So what did the media do with this wonderous media release? Allow me to again quote from the ‘Assessment’:

Media coverage consisted of two articles of which the nature was informative and favourable. Articles appeared in IT News (12/11/2015) and PS News (13/11/2015).

The ABS was only able to find TWO media references to the exercise. How was this media release disseminated? It is unclear who the Release was sent to. However from my own personal experience, it would not be the first time that the ABS ‘released’ something by simply dumping it on their website and expecting it to magically disseminate all over the place by itself. As the only supportive media responses that the ABS can point to are pretty small stuff, it is not an unreasonable assumption that the the releases were not pushed very hard at all. I am sure I would have recalled if the mainstream media had fired up about it. Someone in the ABS is going to know the truth but I think we can safely assume that they ain’t going to be talking. So much for all that wonderful transparency!

The fact that there was virtually no meaningful consultation or public awareness makes this entire exercise a complete sham. For the ABS to officially declare that as a result of these public consultations there is a Very Low likelihood of a lowering of public participation, makes this entire exercise an absolute farce.

I should not have to make this next comment as it should be self-evident, but I shall anyway. The Australian Bureau of Statistics is about not just data, but meaningful data; data that is defensible; data that can tell the real story. GDP? CPI? National Accounts? Employment data? They are all ABS data. Yet this public consultation exercise is such a complete joke, that any ABS officer caught conducting a survey in such a ridiculously shoddy – dare I say say it: fraudulent – manner would be called in for a pretty bloody serious ‘please explain’ sessions at the highest level. However the current ABS Statistician, David Kalish, by approving release of that ‘Assessment’ and all the other supporting drivel, has given his endorsement and support to this outrageously bad exercise. It would seem that the Australian Statistician has no problems whatsoever with what appears to be deliberate hiding of things from the public thus ensuring obtaining results to support what can only be a predetermined or expressly desired outcome!

What is this – are we all now living in an episode of Yes, Minister?

Further, for the ABS to continue to insist that they have been so very transparent in this exercise, once subjected to even the most rudimentary analysis, that insistence is either a complete fabrication or they are so incredibly incompetent that they should not be entrusted with so much as organising a piss up in brewery. And, as I am sure many of the ABS staff still enjoy an ale as they did in my time, then they are more than capable of said organisation if they want to be. Consequently it is very hard to make any other assessment from the information provided by the ABS other than the ABS at the highest level made no attempt whatsoever to ensure the Australian public knew about this, taking an approach which guaranteed virtually no response. The evidence thus seems to be increasing that the ABS appears to have deliberately buried it in order to achieve a predetermined result!

The ABS I used to work for would not have accepted such a pathetic approach. For crying out loud, when I was developing a new classification for new buildings data – hardly a thrilling exercise – I obtained a hell of a lot more responses than THREE!  I was busy emailing and telephoning every potential interest group I could come up with. I happily presented at Statistics User Groups or anything else I could get a hearing at in order to get the word out. If I hadn’t done that, my testicles would have ended up as someone’s virtual earrings. Yet this issue of national interest regarding the retention and use of personal Census identifiers (names, addresses) apparently FOREVER, has been buried, thus avoiding the chances of the public getting upset and forcing the ABS to admit that yes, the Australian public does have concerns. Again this has every appearance of deliberately burying things in order to achieve a predetermined result!

Now let us look at timing. The guts of the exercise were conducted in late 2015. The actual public release of the Assessment and the bloody ridiculous finding about public perception was done a week before Christmas ie December 18, 2015. That is one of the oldest tricks in the PR book – if you want to keep it quiet, release it at times like Christmas when it won’t be noticed.

Are you happy about this? Or are you like me and pretty pissed off that we are all being treated in such a pathetic manner?

I encourage you to make some noises. It would be nice to be able to direct you how to email the Statistician. Unfortunately the ABS does not publicise any actual contacts, that having been the policy for years now. You could try sending something through the post to the address on their website, but something tells me that you won’t get much of a response. You could try one of the general online contact things but I wouldn’t expect it to actually go anywhere near the Kalish. So I suggest contacting the following:

I would also encourage people to contact the media, let them know about this deliberate fudging things by our National Statistical Office.

For the record, yes, I am ex-ABS. And my departure was not a happy one. But in most things I would have generally sais yes, data is pretty safe with the ABS. But the ABS is not what it once was. There have been big changes in the last few years, in no small way being driven by continued funding cuts same as everywhere else but still expected to produce the same products to the same degree of reliability. And my own direct experience was that when it suits them to do so, the ABS doesn’t actually have too many concerns about releasing a staff member’s personal details and files to external parties. And are equally prepared to lie through their teeth to the Privacy Commissioner about it afterwards. Extremely nasty but true. And on the off-chance the ABS sees this and wants to challenge me, please do. Oh, please do! Unlike the ABS, I actually kept records!!!

Concerns about the ABS have been growing of late. As well as plenty of conjecture about the accuracy of current labour statistics, former Statistician and normally staunch defender of the ABS, William L. (Bill) McLennan, was reported as openly declared the current labour statistics since about mid-2015 “are not worth the paper they’re printed on.” In fact when Bill McLennan was the Australian Statistician, if I had attempted to run a statistical exercise they way the ABS has done this public perception bullshit, once Bill learned of it I would have lost my hearing probably half-way through his expressing his considerable displeasure.

The ultimate protest is to refuse to participate in the next Census of Population and Housing. But if you want to take that step, remember that it could ultimately mean going to court. As for me, I would love a day in court against the ABS. I have kept years’ worth of dirt, of lies, of all sorts of things which give a damned good reason why I should distrust the Australian Bureau of Statistics.

To borrow from Shakespeare, something stinks in Belconnen, ACT. And it isn’t just my sweaty socks.

Ross sig

  1. Paul says:

    I have sent my ‘noises’ to the following people at the ABS. No reply yet… but one lives in hope..
    Regards, Paul

    Australian Statistician
    Mr David W. Kalisch

    (02) 6252 6705
    (02) 6252 8080

    Executive Assistant to the Australian Statistician
    Ms Bessie Campbell

    ABS House, 45 Benjamin Way, Belconnen ACT 2617
    Locked Bag 10, Belconnen ACT 2616
    (02) 6252 6704

    Executive Officer
    Ms Cassandra Gligora

    Abs House, 45 Benjamin Way, Belconnen ACT 2617
    Locked Bag 10, Belconnen ACT 2616
    (02) 6252 7404
    0428 910 935
    (02) 6252 7404

    • ausross says:

      I received a response after the Assistant Minister to the Treasurer forwarded a copy of my letter to him on to the ABS. And it was simplistic crap. But there has been a change. Now the retention is only to be ‘temporary’ of up to four years. Except that takes us to the next scheduled Census. In other words they can just replace the old ‘temporary’ dataset with a new ‘temporary’ data set.

      I responded setting out some very specific points and questions but also copied it to the Canberra Times. A reporter has now produced an article about it and I’m told it will be in Fairfax on Monday.

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