Just as we can judge the arrival of a political scandal with the appendage of the ‘-gate’ suffix, so too can we mark an online debacle with the spread of a hashtag ending in ‘-fail’. This week it has been the Australian Bureau of Statistics that has been branded with the #CensusFail hashtag and in the process, one of our most important public institutions has suffered a completely unnecessary loss of public trust in the lead up to its most important function as a result.
Unfortunately, when it comes to new proposals to collect, store and make use of digital data sets, we don’t seem to be learning the lessons of #fails past. The #CensusFail ought to be a giant, flashing warning sign for the leaders of all major Australian institutions — public and private — that the dividends of digital data will only be realised if we tackle the radical new opportunities and risks associated with it head on. To stop the #fail cycle, we need a new policy agenda — a National Information Policy.
The source of the #CensusFail controversy revolves around the ABS’s decision to change the period that it retains the names of Australians who complete the Census. You probably didn’t know it, but the ABS began using Australians’ names and addresses for data integration in the 2006 Census, destroying them 18 months after collection. Today, the ABS intends to retain this sensitive information for four years. The names will be used to create ‘anonymous keys’, unique identifiers that anonymise the data sets while still allowing other data about individuals collected by the ABS to be linked to the Census data and individual data trends to be tracked.
There are enormous potential benefits from this kind of data matching. The explosion in information that is being collected about our world as a result of digitisation and ubiquitous connectivity has radically changed the potential utility of data. It’s no exaggeration to say that the improvements it could make in government decision making and public service delivery could be worth billions. Other developed countries like New Zealand and the United Kingdom have been linking data sets like this for some time and are far more advanced in realising the public benefits.
At the same time, anonymization and data linkage raise real and sometimes complex security, privacy and data governance questions. While the scale of the potential benefits of data collection and retention are enormous, so too are the potential risks. The recent hacking and leaking of the private data retained by the Democratic National Committee by Russian actors in an attempt to interfere in the US election ought to have gotten every politician’s attention at the very least.
A societal and economic change of this scale demands public leadership. It demands that the leaders of our institutions engage with the public about the opportunities and the risks and ensure that there is broad confidence in the way forward. While the ABS’s data security and management is exemplary, as a compulsory data collection exercise that touched every Australian, these changes were always going to provoke anxiety. Yet, the Turnbull government has comprehensively failed this test of leadership. Neither agile nor innovative, in the preceding weeks the Turnbull government hasn’t even been able to agree on who the responsible Minister is. Inexplicably, the Small Business Minister has now been handed the responsibility in the latest reshuffle, but reactive press conferences held after public paranoia has already set in have been far too little, too late.
There is a better way. In December of last year, Bill Shorten announced that a Labor government would pursue a ‘National Information Policy’, a reform agenda that would follow the model of the Keating government’s National Competition Policy and systematically scan our institutions, policies and regulations to optimise the generation, protection, access and use of information in Australia. A National Information Policy would tackle the opportunities and the risks created by digital data head on, engaging the public in a discussion on the best way forward before the fever of online paranoia sets in. It’s the public leadership we need to avoid Australian data policy becoming yet another #fail.