Privacy and the Census: It’s Really Not All About You
Are there good alternatives to the mandatory census long-form questionnaire to collect the information that we need?
Last Saturday CBC’s The House had a sparkling section on the census which offered some thoughts from a Danish statistician and the views of Canada’s longest serving Chief Statistician, Ivan Fellegi. On Tuesday Tavia Grantâ€™s superb article in the Globe and Mail looked at how Europeans tackled the challenge.
Like so many other imports from Europe, the joined-up administrative approach would be difficult to attempt in Canada, and probably unsellable politically once people realise what reliance on “administrative” data means. In fact it is likely the Conservatives and most particularly the libertarian base that supports their current position on the census who would most resist such a move.
To follow these European examples, administrative data from various sources would be collated under our Social Insurance Number ( or a new “universal” identification).
There, in one place, would be our school records and, soon, our health records. It would tell the story of how our incomes rose and fell and how often we were unemployed over our life cycle, and our interface with the State for income supports, traffic violations or more serious aspects of the justice system. As suggested in the UK, it could easily be linked to credit history. In the case of some European nations, you would have to report to the police every time you change your address or job.
Talk about Big Brother.
Compare this to the non-intrusive use of information through the Census long form.
The focus of interest is not you, but â€œusâ€: statistical categories of people just like you – the people who live in your neighbourhood, who are in your age group, with your level of education, in your ethno-racial group. Census shows how we compare to our peers and how one group compares to another.
These data don’t track you, they accurately map what is changing in Canadian society. Then itâ€™s up to Canadian society to decide what needs to change. Neighbourhood by neighbourhood, region by region, and nationallly.
The census has changed over time to meet our needs as an evolving social experiment, an unusually diverse society keen to live their lives in relative peace and equality.
We are the United Nations in action, and Canada works partly because of what we know about ourselves and how we use that feedback loop to make adjustments.
The longer set of questions in the mandatory census provide the most helpful information for that process.
It needs to be repeated: There is no way census data can be used to identify what is going on in your personal life.
Until this census, it was possible to take a peak at the answers of individual respondents 92 years later, when presumably the people who answered the questions would be long since dead. But the Conservatives have thought ahead and guarded you against future coercive states and nosy family members, geneologists or historians who want to invade your privacy, by introducing a check-off box to make even that disclosure voluntary.
Admittedly, if you are on the receiving end of the long-form process, some lines of inquiry may seem strange coming from “the government”: How much time do you spend with your children or doing housework? When do you leave for work, how long does it take you to get there, and how do you make that journey? How many bedrooms do you have in your house? What about bathrooms?
But, as weirdly personal as some of the questions seem, it’s really not all about you.
It’s about understanding how widespread are the attributes of prosperity like adequate housing.
Or identifying where pandemics could be spread more quickly.
Or assessing the degree to which young families are spending more time at work than with their families or communities.
Or the changing patterns of how families get formed over the course of generations.
Or how much patterns vary among people with a PhD versus a certificate of high school completion.
Are we essentially the same, or are we pretty different? Are the differences converging or getting bigger?
Because these stories must mandatorily be collected from all Canadians (1 in 5 households, in every corner of the land) census data helps us see how these stories are evolving not just at the “Canadian” level, whatever that aggregate means, but in its full diversity: by region, ethno-racial background, income level, age, household type, immigrant status, and level of ability or disability.
Every single one of these parameters is changing quickly, as Canadian society ages, the labour force shrinks, we continue to flock to cities, and our legacy as a nation of immigrants takes another leap forward.
You know the punchline – we need to reverse this decision.