Open letter from privacy advocates calls for inquiry into Census 2016

A number of privacy, security and technology experts have called on the Prime Minister to launch an immediate inquiry into the 2016 Census.

“The Turnbull Government’s handling of the Census to date demonstrates both a total disrespect for personal privacy rights and lack of digital literacy,” said Amy Gray from Digital Rights Watch.

“The frustration felt by the public extends far beyond the inconvenience of the website crashing on Census night. Valid privacy concerns were dismissed, confusion and obfuscation about the ‘attacks’ on the ABS servers pervaded throughout the media, and very little information was provided to the public about what had actually occurred.”

“What is urgently needed is an an independent investigation of the whole process, including a forensic report of the cause of the website crash, the handling of privacy concerns and the outsourcing of key services to private companies,” said Ms Gray.

“Research ethics matter and are relevant to all data collection projects, including the Census. Critical questions of informed consent and confidentiality were swept aside in Census 2016. This has had predictably disastrous consequences for public trust and the reliability of the data collected,” said Dr Leslie Cannold.

“The upside of #Censusfail is that it’s provided Australian leaders with a chance to consult with experts and the Australian people about the consent and privacy implications of Big Data. This is the research ethics, digital privacy & personal information debate we had to have,” said Dr Cannold.

“We call on the government to appoint suitable experts to conduct an independent inquiry into the ABS’s conduct of Census 2016. And to adopt best practice ethical and governance standards in the collection, use, linkage and storage of Australians’ personal and sensitive data.”

For media comment please contact Digital Rights Watch

If you’d like to join this call for action, sign our petition here.



The letter, signed by prominent privacy advocates, academics and journalists, reads:

The conduct of this year’s census raises serious and pressing ethical, legal, security and technological concerns. These throw doubt on the value of the exercise and the quality of the data collected.

The Australian government must put the Census 2016 on hold while it consults with the Australian people on the value and ethical ramifications of this and similar mass data-collection exercises. Expert input and advice must be sought to determine best practice ethical, governance and security standards for data collection, use, linkage, storage, and real-world implementation.

These problems, and the difficulties Australians have experienced in accessing and completing both the paper and electronic forms, make imperative the provision of the following two remedies.

We therefore respectfully request:

1. Amnesty for anyone who files a late or incomplete census
2. An independent inquiry into the ABS’s conduct of Census 2016. This should include a comparison of the ethical and institutional governance arrangements for hard-copy and electronic data collection, storage, linkage and use with international and best practice standards. Community consultation should take place in regard to the appointment of heads of this inquiry, precise terms of reference and timeframes for reporting.


Signed by:
Tim Norton, Digital Rights Watch
Amy Gray, Digital Rights Watch
Asher Wolf, journalist
Dr Suelette Dreyfus
Peter Tonoli
Jenna Price
Liam Pomfret, Australian Privacy Foundation
Mark Walkom, Australian Privacy Foundation
Simon Frew, Pirate Party Australia
Felicity Ruby, PhD Candidate
Professor Ariadne Vromen
Tim Cashmere
Mary Kostakidis, Freelance Journalist
Gautam Raju, Campaigner
Jack Skinner
Dr Leslie Cannold
Melissa Castan, Law Lecturer
Dr Ben Harris-Roxas
Professor Robert Sparrow
Robin Doherty, Hack for Privacy
Dr Kristoffer Greaves, Legal Educator
Archie Law, CEO ActionAid Australia
Thomas Kane
Kate Galloway, Law Lecturer
Tom Sulston, Technology Consultant
Trisha Jha
Suzy Wood, IP Lawyer
Justin Clacherty, Future Wise Australia
Cade Diehm, SpiderOak
Trent Yarwood, Future Wise Australia
Julian Burnside AO QC
Dr Matthew Rimmer, Professor of Intellectual Property and Innovation Law, QUT Faculty of Law
Dan Nolan, software engineer
James Horton, Founder & CEO, Datanomics
Steve King, Privacy Research and Advocate
Dr Angela Daly, QUT Law and APF board member
Senator Sarah Hanson-Young, Australian Greens
Katie Miller, Lawyer
Electronic Frontier Foundation
Jennifer Robinson, human rights lawyer
Nic Seton, Campaigner
James Clark, Digital Campaigner