The Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS) has advised that the secure online Census form was put back up at 2.30 pm Thursday, as recriminations continue to flow after this week’s Census night saw the system taken offline.
The widely-proclaimed “debacle” exacerbated privacy concerns about critical changes to the Census collection that had already seen Greens Senators and Independent Senator Nick Xenophon vow to risk big fines by refusing to put their names on their forms.
The Special Adviser to the Prime Minister on Cyber Security Alastair MacGibbon is heading a review of the events, supported by the Australian Signal Directorate, Treasury and ABS, with Malcolm Turnbull warning that “heads will roll”.
But the technical failures and, more crucially, loss of faith in the Census could have a serious impact on health and social policy in Australia.
In the post below, Alison Verhoeven, Chief Executive, Australian Healthcare and Hospitals Association, urges the Federal Government and ABS to learn from the experience and to restore faith, saying the importance to policy and services of the information the Census gathers should not be under-estimated.
Alison Verhoeven writes
The controversy over the compromised Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS) online Census form should not dissuade households from accurately completing the five-year survey when (and if) the website is declared operational and secure. The involvement of the Australian Signals Directorate and the Office of the Australian Information Commissioner in this process is critical.
The Census is used for many purposes, including to assist with decisions about where hospitals and health services should be located, what services they should provide and how health funding is distributed. The cross-section of information collected is also used for a variety of other planning purposes and by researchers to better understand the evolving characteristics of Australian society.
While disappointing that the Census website was not more rigorously prepared to be able to cope with peak demand and anticipatable operational challenges (malicious or otherwise), the importance of the information gathered through this survey of all Australian households should not be underestimated.
Many commentators have suggested that concerns about providing personal details when completing the Census need to be seen in the context of many other online activities Australians accept as normal today (including online banking, shopping, and for many, details of their personal life expressed through social media). However it must be acknowledged that these are voluntary activities and not all Australians choose to engage in them.
It is unfortunate that the ABS did not provide leadership in communicating the importance and value of Census information to the Australian public in the five years since the last Census. These communications could have explored the balance between privacy and utility of information, and should have moved beyond statements about legal requirements and penalties to a more mature discussion of risks and benefits. Options to opt-out of provision of some information may have been considered in that debate.
It is hoped that Australians will be prepared to accurately complete the Census to support the planning of public services, including health, if the Government can provide appropriate assurances about the security of the online Census facility. But it is important that the Government and the ABS takes some positive actions from this experience: a thorough inquiry into the debacle is required, and this should include investigation of exactly what information Australians are prepared to share with government and for what purpose.