Worried about your privacy and the census?

Alternatives to the long-form census may be more intrusive


Pharmacy - preceptor with studentsDoes the idea of having to answer a questionnaire — about where you live, what kind of place you live in, what work you do, what your level of education is, what range of income you have — bother you or feel like an invasion of your privacy?


Most people don’t mind if they know that the individual information will be carefully guarded and kept secret, and that only averaged information will be revealed. Statistics Canada has an excellent record on protecting private data and most people accept that governments need accurate information about the people they are supposed to be helping.


Good government needs good data.


But a few people (and they come from all political stripes) tell me that they just don’t like it filling in Statistics Canada’s long-form census and that it feels intrusive.


If you are one of these folks, I want to make just two points to you.


Mandatory surveys eliminate bias in the data


First, you might not know that if filling out the census were voluntary, then what can happen is that certain groups of people tend to not fill out the census. People who are busy juggling work and kids, have sick relatives to take care of, or bills to pay, would tend not to return the census. The government in turn would not realize how many of you there were. The kind of people who we’d want government to help out would not get counted. We now know how bad it can be. A researcher said of the voluntary 2011 National Household Survey, which cost $22 million more than the long-form census it replaced, “The National Household Survey is not valid. It should not be used or cited. It should be withdrawn.”


So making the census mandatory means that census workers make sure there is no statistical bias in who gets counted. Urban or rural, rich or poor, healthy or sick, old or young, — all have an equal chance of getting counted, and no group is underestimated when it comes to providing a fair share of services.


Now you might ask, if we want to find out, for example, how many people get a business accounting degree, why don’t we just ask the colleges? And then if we want to find out what average incomes are, why don’t we ask the Canada Revenue Agency? Well, the answer to this is, yes, we do use those sources of information. But you might want to ask a very important question: How much of a difference in income does having a business accounting degree make? In that case you have to ask individuals about their education and income simultaneously. You have to get people to fill out surveys.


Governments, people, businesses, all need good data to make smart decisions. That is why not only researchers, but organizations like the Canadian Chamber of Commerce have called for the restoration of the mandatory long-form census.


Alternatives to the long-form census could be a bigger risk to your privacy


UPC-A-036000291452The second thing I want to tell you is that the alternative to the long-form census may be worse from the point of view of your privacy. The Canadian government is looking at alternatives to the traditional census which are used in other countries, because it is expensive for Statistics Canada to get those census questionnaires filled out. Did you know that some countries (Austria, Denmark, Finland, Norway, Sweden) have no census? Instead these countries use what is called administrative data. This is data that the government accumulates as it runs the country.


In these countries, when you are born you get a universal personal identification number. That number is you and it is used for everything — schooling, driving or firearms licences, health care, employment, taxes, banking, ownership or residence records. Whenever the government obtains information about you, it gets connected back to you through this personal identification number.


Now you can probably see why such a system has major privacy implications that the Canadian people would have to seriously debate before anything like that got implemented in Canada.


What feels like more of an invasion of privacy: a) being tethered for life providing data to the government with a universal personal identification number, or b) having Statistics Canada take a snapshot of you every five years? With the traditional census you know what information you are giving to the government and why it is being collected. Administrative data is collected at one point in time, and then maybe supplemented with other data the government picks up later, and used still further into the future.


For this reason, if you are worried about privacy — but appreciate the importance of having a government that relies on accurate facts — the mandatory long-form census should not seem so bad.


My private member’s bill C-626 restores the ability to collect national statistics of the quality we had in the 2006 census and before. It requires the restoration of the long-form census but does allow for its replacement with newer sources of data as they become available. Bill C-626 also eliminates the prison sentence for refusing to provide truthful answers to the census, replacing that penalty with a fine.