Monday, July 19, 2010

The Tooth Fairy, Easter Bunny, and the Long Form Census Privacy Breech

"What do you think of the long form census" I ask inquisitively, adding "You know, the census form, which one out of every five persons needs to fill out. In order to provide information about stuff like ethnicity, religion, and income".

"I don't want to give out information to the government if I don't have to." I'm sternly told.

"Why not?" I ask politely. "It will never get released." I elaborate: "I've worked quite a bit with the Canadian census and with StatCan. I know from dealing with them that it is impossible for them to release any private information." I qualify my argument further "StatCan has strict privacy regulations preventing them from releasing identifiable information of either an individual or a business. It's the law." I go on "they have a 'rule of 3' whereby information must be aggregated to at least 3 parties. Furthermore, they also have a 'round to 5 rule', whereby all respondent counts are rounded to the nearest 5". I natter on some more "there has never been a privacy breech, even for a terrorism related investigation. The chief statistician reports directly to the prime minister of Canada. The OECD ranks StatCan as the best national statistics body in the world, and their workers take great pride in all of this, and see privacy protection as their 'Prime Directive' - I know these guys."

No change. "I don't care. You never know what they'll do with this information. That's just what they tell you."

Hmmm, I had to dig deeper. "But they 'the big bad government' [not StatCan] already know how many bedrooms you have, where you live, what you buy, who you're friends are. If you believe they are corrupt, they can access bank records, your Internet history, your telephone calls, your property records. Even I can bring up Google Street Maps and take a look at your house. I can browse your Facebook profile [which Facebook surreptitiously has opened up unbeknownst to many]. They can check your vehicle registration, check your credit rating, your insurance premiums, your credit and debit card purchases. All they need to do is send a bunch of faxes and make a few phone calls. They have the authority already. You're too late." Feeling a bit frustrated, I become more forceful in my argument "The only way you can get around them is by living like The Unibomber Ted Kaczynski. You would have to abandon your home and all your possessions and start again. You'd have to drive up to northern Ontario in the cover of night, build a log cabin, and live there for the rest of your life, living off the land - even making your own soap. And there's no guarantee that will work."

It's no use, his mind is made up. No counterargument, just "I don't want to give out my personal information to the government."

I give up on this conversation and change the subject. I can see it's going nowhere. Thank goodness for blogs...

The problem is, without a census, it's really difficult to make educated policy decisions. The census was specifically designed to be analyzed in aggregate. It was not and is not intended to be used as a repository of personal information. Although detail records are required in order to generate accurate pictures at a higher level, and these analyses almost always are based around geography.

As you may well be aware, our Prime Minister, Stephen Harper has single-handedly dismantled one of the most essential and proud pieces of Canadian infrastructure: the Canadian Census Long Form. As such, he is hobbling all levels of government, including provincial and municipal, not to mention the thousands of businesses that depend on this information to make informed decisions like where to open their storefront. To make matters worse, he is greatly hindering foreign investors from investing in Canada. The biggest obstacle to making any kind of investment is basic information. Canada has traditionally been a very safe place for companies to invest, in large part due to the educated work force and middle class consumers. However, if you don't know where that workforce lives, or where those consumers are, it's a lot tougher to justify those multimillion dollar investments.

But the reason why Harper has decided to drop the Long Form census is that he knows there are a lot of people who have unfounded and irrational fears of the Census Long Form. Many of those people are immigrants who come from tyrannical governments who do abuse their power (although ironically these governments also don't need the census to locate and persecute).

Stephen Harper understand this hysteria all too well, and is using it bolster support for himself and his government, facts be damned. And in selling this hatchet job, he is using every dirty trick in the book. Last week the line was "the government doesn't need to know how many bedrooms you have in your house" - a clear attempt conflate the census with "the government should stay out of your bedroom", which was a common tag-line that comes up when sexual liberties are being discussed. Today it was "why does the government need to infringe on people's privacy?", a line that Glenn Beck or Bill O'Reilly may attempt to deliver with a straight face.

There is something also very "meta" about all this. Harper is effectively abandoning Evidence Based Decision making in order to... have everyone else abandon Evidence Based Decision making. It is shameless fear mongering, and it is bad for everyone, including those who don't like filling out forms.

On that note, I would like to conclude with a plea to reach out and help people understand why the census is so important, and why privacy fears are unfounded. A good start is to keep this conversation going. This should be our prime ministers job. Instead he would rather us be fearful of the bogeyman and hide under our beds.


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