For its 2016 census, the country’s national statistical agency announced changes that would impact citizens’ privacy. For the first time ever, census respondents’ personal information would be retained and linked with other administrative and survey data the agency has access to.
The national media quickly jumped on the story. The country’s public broadcaster wrote “If you’re worried about privacy, you should worry about the 2016 census”. The country’s premiere technology publication wrote “Lost our Census: Why the biggest hit to privacy this year is all about you”.
Once aware of the changes, the public was outraged. Calls for a nationwide census boycott erupted. Academics and former top bureaucrats – including a former federal privacy commissioner and a former chief statistician – publicly voiced their concerns.
No, this isn’t a Bizarro universe scenario of what didn’t happen in Canada following the referenced changes to the 2016 census implemented by Statistics Canada. This is what’s actually happening in Australia, where the Australian Bureau of Statistics has implemented similar changes for its upcoming 2016 census, set to take place next month.
Longitudinal Labour Force File
Social Data Linkage Environment
|.T1-Income Tax Returns and T4-S and T4-F forms
.Child Tax Benefits
.Immigration and Visitors files (1993 or earlier)
.Provincial and municipal welfare files
.National Training Program
.Canadian Job Strategy
.National Employment Services
.Employment Insurance Administrative
.Record of Employment
.Social Insurance Master file
|.T1 Personal Master Files
.Canadian Child Tax Benefits files
.Longitudinal Immigration Database
.Vital Statistics – birth and death databases
.Sample portion of Census of Population (1991 onward)
.National Household Survey (2011 onward)
.National Longitudinal Survey of Children and Youth
.Longitudinal Survey of Immigrants to Canada
.Survey of Labour and Income Dynamics
.Youth in Transition Survey
.National Population Health Survey
.T1 Family File
.Clinical administrative databases (1992 onward)
.Canadian Cancer Registry
.Canadian Community Health Survey (all cycles)
.Canadian Health Measures Survey (all cycles)
(with qualifier, “files include but are not limited to”)
As mentioned recently, Statistics Canada released its 2016 Census Program Content Test report on April 1st of this year, just one month before it began census letter mailings. As already discussed, the 2016 census was the first where Statscan neither asked respondents about their income nor for consent to obtain the information from their Canada Revenue Agency (CRA) tax records. Instead, it proceeded to link Canadians’ census and CRA tax records without their consent.
One would suspect more than a few Canadians who took the time to read the brief, and conspicuously vague, note on their census form announcing the change may have had concerns. Statscan has claimed no such concerns were brought to its attention. However, a careful reading of the referenced report casts doubt on that claim. And it was smart people who were most concerned with changes to the 2016 census, according to the same Statscan report.
The vast majority of Canadians were furious when, in the summer of 2010, the federal government of the day decided to exclude the long-form questionnaire from the 2011 census. They were enthusiastic to fill out their long-form census questionnaires. They had practically no security or privacy concerns.
At least that was the popular media narrative.
Only a few months later, Canadians handed the same government that made that seemingly fateful decision its first majority. Despite their supposed enthusiasm, one in three Canadian households opted not to complete the voluntary 2011 National Household Survey (68.6% unweighted response rate) – and that’s with Statscan spending tens of millions more on ‘follow-up’ and accepting forms with as few as 10 of 84 questions completed. As it turned out, security and privacy were the primary reasons prosecuted census refuseniks offered for their refusal to comply.