Explain to me: Why everyone is getting so worked up about tonight's Census.

One evening every five years, Australians sit down to fill in the Census.

It’s usually an uncontroversial affair and a way for the Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS) to create a snapshot of the nation to inform policymakers.

Tuesday August 9 is Census night, but it’s been marred by privacy concerns with many threatening a boycott that could result not only in a truckload of hefty fines, but would also create an inaccurate picture of where we stand in 2016.

People have been airing their concerns (somewhat colourfully) under the Twitter hashtag #CensusFail.

But the Census is nothing new, what’s changed?

Formerly, you could opt in to have your name kept by the ABS. It’s now compulsory.

The rationale for the change is that names and addresses can be matched with other data, for example health or education statistics, to create better services.

The concern is whether that information can really be kept safe and separate from other personal and household information provided in the Census, like your religion.

Weighing in Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull has given his assurance that proper protections were in place and privacy was “a given”.

“… in undertaking the Census [the ABS] always protects the people’s privacy and the security of their personal details is absolute,” he has said, but many privacy experts — not to mention members of the public — remain unconvinced.

The ABS says names and addresses will be removed from the forms after data collection and processing, then stored separately.

No one working with the data will be given access to the identifying information, which would be destroyed after four years. It used to be destroyed after 18 months.


Is the information really safe?

Former statistician Bill McLennan described the the changes as “without doubt […] the most significant invasion of privacy ever perpetrated on Australians by the ABS”.

Many politicians have also expressed their concerns, with Independent Senator Nick Xenophon describing the whole thing as “a complete shemozzle”. He has now said he will not add his name to his census.

The ABS claims it is “committed to the protection of the privacy and confidentiality of everyone who completes the Census” and the risk of a hack occurring is low.

That there is a risk at all is the concern, although previous breaches of the ABS system have never accessed Census data.

What if I just don’t do it?

Aside from skewing the data, if you don’t complete the Census you could be fined up to $180 a day after a certain date.

The fine for deliberately giving false information is $1800.

As NU demographer Liz Allen explained on the ABC: “The consequences of boycotting the Census or sabotaging the Census data, of course putting aside the fact that you could be fined and face prosecution, is that the data won’t truly represent Australia.

Rather than a complete boycott, many people have simply asked for traditional paper forms in favour of using the new online reporting system so they can choose to omit their names.

It’s worth noting many overseas national statistical agencies, such as in Canada, the UK and New Zealand, have retained names and addresses from their own censuses for the same purpose without incident.

And while it’s not exactly comforting, many have pointed out the government already knows an awful lot about you.