When Big Brother comes knocking
In the next few weeks, everyone who happens to be in NZ will have to fill out a census form.
Normally, the government holds the census every five years, but the last one was due in March 2011 and was delayed due to the Christchurch earthquake. As a result, the 2013 form contains detailed instructions on how to correctly count the number of bedrooms in a half-demolished house.
There are two forms: one for the house and one for each person present at the house on March 5. Both are linked by the address and the names. Filling them out is compulsory. Refusal to answer any of the questions, defacing the form or giving "wrong" answers is a punishable offence with a maximum fine of $500. For those who continue to be resilient, there is a fine of $20 per day – until they submit. This probably makes it the only offence where the maximum fine is actually unlimited.
For businesses, the census collectors can also demand to see any books, goods or other records related to the business. They can even get a warrant to search the business for those records. The collectors may also pose as customers to test if the business has given the correct answers.
So why is the government so serious about the census?
The government says that it needs the information for planning purposes. However, no minister has claimed that they haven't been able to do their job in the last two years because of the lack of census data. Or is the closure of 19 schools in Christchurch really the punishment for the people there for failing to fill out their forms when their houses were in ruins?
A lot of the questions ask for information that is already available from other government agencies or business organisations. The number of cars at an address can be obtained from the Transport Agency. The number of mortgages is regularly published by the banks, the average rent paid in a particular city is also regularly published. Income figures are held by the IRD. Birth rates, marriages, civil unions are all available through the Department of Internal Affairs. What is not available outside of the census is how many Muslim people married and had how many children they have. It is the combination of all those questions that adds information.
But why is that sort of information of interest? Is the government planning to build special child care centres for particular ethnicities? If that was the intention, it could simply contact the various community organisations. Or is it more interested in knowing, for example, how many single Muslim men live by themselves in a particular suburb, because they may fit the profile of potential "terrorists"?
The government's claim that the information is needed to be able to plan properly is simply not credible. While the form asks about the number of cars in a household, it does not ask about bicycles or bus passes. Wouldn't a government that seriously wants to develop a transport strategy need to know that as well? This leaves the impression that the data will really only be used to justify what the government has been doing anyway – in this case, build roads and more roads.
Trust us, your information is safe
The Statistics Act states that no one outside of the statistics department can access the individual forms and that none of the information can be used to prosecute anyone (except for prosecutions against people who haven't filled out the form). However, the penalty for violating this act is a mere $500 – the same as the penalty as for defacing your own form. It is hard to believe that such a penalty would deter any one who really wanted to get at the information.
How credible is this assurance from a government that has allowed the ACC and WINZ security breaches to happen? At the same time the government is telling us that our details are safe and that not even the police will be able to see them, it also just announced a new initiative to "see data sharing between ACC, Inland Revenue, Housing New Zealand, the New Zealand Police and the Ministry of Social Development". And we are to believe that the Department of Statistics is not included in this?
Irrespective of whether or not this present government can be trusted, the rules can be changed tomorrow. The Statistics Act is just another act of parliament which can be changed by a simple majority, while electronic images of the filled out forms will be retained for 100 years.
The two forms together collect data that could be used to for a number of purposes, e.g. to locate overstayers, find people who have been moonlighting or working while on ACC or any other benefit, people who have not declared their full income to the IRD, etc.
It can also be used to round up people of a particular ethnicity or religion – as occurred in Germany in the 1930s. Although the question about religion is not compulsory, the question about ethnicity is, and the information can easily be used to derive the religion with some probability. Certainly with enough probability for any MP who wants have a go at people who "come from a Muslim country".