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Category: Campfire

Around the campfire: UK Census time – how private is your data?

I have just filled in my census form. It's a job that comes round every 10 years, although Scotland is pushing back its census until 2022, "due to the...

25 March 2021

Jason Cozens

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I have just filled in my census form. It’s a job that comes round every 10 years, although Scotland is pushing back its census until 2022, “due to the impact of the Covid-19 pandemic” which, oddly enough, has not delayed that of England, Wales or Northern Ireland. The US also runs a census every 10 years – their next one is due in 2030.

What do I think of these great data-gathering exercises? A nosey-parker intrusion by the state into the private lives of 68 million people? Or a useful exercise which enables the government to make better policy decisions? On the basis of many past government errors, I’m not very hopeful about the latter.

But unless I want a criminal record, I have no choice – failure to complete the census risks a £1,000 ($1,383) fine. Refusing to complete the US census risks a fine of up to $5,000 (£3,600). Four UK ‘refuseniks’ were fined a £1,000 after the 2011 UK census; 270 more were fined an average of £218.

Censuses have expanded their probing over time. As with the first (1790) US census, there were just six questions in the first (1801) UK census – no names or addresses. From 1871 to 1911, the UK one even asked if anyone was blind, deaf, dumb, an imbecile or lunatic.

For 2021’s model the (now) 50 questions range from “what is your name and date of birth” to “how well can you speak English?” and (voluntary) ones about religion and gender.

Personal data is big business these days. The UK’s Office for National Statistics promises “your information is safe with us” and will remain confidential for 100 years. But how strong can that promise be? The US moved its census on-line to an outsourced company from 2016; but it was hacked from IP addresses in Russia during 2018 testing.

There were ‘thousands’ of data breaches in UK government departments between 2019 and 2020. The UK government awarded a £65 million contract for administering this year’s on-line census to a US-based company called Leidos, which the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI), listed as the 19th biggest arms and military services company in the world in 2019. The 2011 census was run by the US-based arms company Lockheed Martin.

Gathering and using information on individuals is probably the biggest growth industry of the early 21st century. China does it very effectively and, with its Central Bank Digital Currency – and CBDCs will soon be everywhere – is tightening its grip over its citizens. Your fiat money is not really yours; your personal data is not really yours.

At Glint, we take your data security very seriously. So, I urge you to be vigilant and protect your personal data.

Until next week, stay safe.


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