Nick Parr has thrown onto my radar screen the controversy surrounding the impending (next Tuesday, the 9th) census enumeration in Australia. It's not about the questions in the census, but rather the fact that the government wants everybody to provide their name and address. ArsTechnica summarizes the issue with a very clever headline: "Australians threaten to take leave of their census."
Next Tuesday is the day Australians must fill in—correctly—their census forms, or face a fine. However, many may be willing to take that risk as the Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS) will rather extraordinarily be storing names and addresses in addition to the usual census results.
Previous census forms have collected this information, but respondents were allowed to opt-in to having personally identifiable information retained. This time, the ABS wants to keep the information on record until 2020. This has provoked both privacy and security concerns. The bureau's former chief statistician Bill McLennan called it “the most significant invasion of privacy ever perpetrated on Australians by the ABS,” and even Apple co-founder Steve Wozniak weighed in to say the data retention plans were “unethical.”For those of us living in the U.S. this sounds like much ado about nothing, since names and addresses have been part of the census-taking effort forever. There are heavy penalties in this country for disclosing any of those data until seven decades after the census is taken, but the existence of such data represents a treasure trove for ancestral searches. This is true not just in the U.S. but in many European countries, as well. Indeed, last year I was able to track down the census information from Denmark about my wife's grandfather, who was born and raised there before migrating to the U.S. as a young adult.
I should note that there are two other differences between the Australian and U.S. censuses. Australia enumerates its population every five years, rather than every ten, and Australians can choose to fill out the form online. A five-year plan was approved by the U.S. Congress many years ago, but never funded. The implementation of the American Community Survey has filled in the gap between decadal censuses. Respondents to the ACS can fill out the form online and the Census Bureau is exploring that possibility for the 2020 census, so we may catch up to Australia on that score.