Surveillance, Coercion, Privacy and the Census

There’s been a huge furore here in Canada about the current government’s decision to abolish the long-form census. I’ve been following the debate more interested in what the proponents and opponents have been saying about privacy and surveillance rather than intervening. But it’s about time I got off the fence, so here’s my two cents’ worth. It may come out as an op-ed piece in one of the papers soon, I don’t know…

Sense about the Census:

Why the Long-form Census debate really matters.

The debate about the scrapping of the long-form census is in danger of being unhelpfully polarized. The result can only benefit the current government to the long-term detriment of the Canadian people. On the one hand, some of those campaigning for the reinstatement of the survey have dismissed issues of surveillance and privacy. On the other hand, supporters of its abolition have referred to ‘privacy’ and ‘coercion’ as if these words in themselves were reason enough to cut the survey. But the whole way in which privacy has been discussed is a red herring. We need to reaffirm a commitment to privacy alongside other collective social values not in opposition to them. We need privacy and we need the census.

First, coercion. The long-form census is undoubtedly a form of coercive state surveillance. One only has to glance at the recent history of state data collection and its role in discrimination and mass-murder to see that that one can be far too blasé about the possibility of states misusing statistics. Examples abound from the Holocaust to the genocide in Rwanda, and there is no reason to suppose that this could never happen again. In fact technology makes discrimination easier and more comprehensive: with sophisticated data-mining techniques, inferences can be made about individuals and groups from disparate and seemingly harmless personal data.

However, just because censuses have the potential for abuse, this does not make them wrong. Surveillance forms the basis of modern societies, good and bad, and coercion is all around us from the time we are children told by our parents not to play on the stairs. Coercion can be caring, protect us and improves our lives. The long-form census would have to be shown to be unfairly coercive, or not have enough beneficial policy outcomes to justify any coercion. This, the government has failed to do, whereas the campaign for the restoration of the survey has highlighted numerous examples of improvements in communities across Canada resulting from long-form census data.

Now to privacy. The campaign to restore the long-form census has seen frequent instances of the argument, ‘nothing to hide, nothing to fear’. This is one of the most glib arguments about privacy and surveillance, not only because of the potential abuse of state data collection but also because it assumes so much about what people should want to keep private. Another common argument is that privacy is irrelevant because ‘everyone gives away their personal information on Facebook anyway’. But the fact that some people chose to share parts of their lives with selected others does not imply that any infringement of privacy is acceptable. Privacy depends on context. Social networking or marketing trends do not mean that ‘anything goes’ with personal data.

In making these arguments, campaigners end up unwittingly bolstering a government strategy that relies not only on the evocation of ‘coercion’ but on pitting individual privacy against collective social goals. Yet, the government’s position is misleading. Privacy is not simply an individual right but also a collective social value. And further, just because the data is collected from individuals by the state, does not mean that the state infringes on privacy. It depends on whether the data is stored without consent in a way that identifies individuals or is used in a way negatively impacts upon them.

However, Statistics Canada have demonstrated a commitment to privacy within the census process. The long-form census data is not used to identify or target individuals. It is aggregated and used for wider community purposes. As Statistics Canada say quite on their website: “No data that could identify an individual, business or organization, are published without the knowledge or consent of the individual, business or organization.” The census returns are confidential and Statistics Canada employees are the only people who will ever have access to the raw returns, and they are bound by The Statistics Act. All this was confirmed by the Office of the Privacy Commissioner of Canada, who found the 2006 census fully compliant with privacy law.

So both privacy and coercion are red herrings. The conduct of the long-form census has demonstrated a commitment to privacy alongside other collective social values in support of individuals and the wider community. This moderate, sensible and profoundly Canadian position is now under threat. That is why this debate matters.