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Saturday, September 3, 2016

Opting In or Opting Out

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In the 2001 census, the government first offered Australians a choice as to whether they would like their name-identified information kept. This year that opt-in system will be a compulsory system. Your name will be kept whether you like it or not' (Berg, C 2016). 

On the 9th of August I, like millions of other Australians sat down to complete the Census of Population and Housing. In previous years the census had been an understandable curiosity, an excuse to sit down with a glass of wine and some pizza, and contribute some useful data. This time however, the process was undertaken with a somewhat heavy heart. The government’s decision to make this year’s census individually identifiable, with the compulsory inclusion of one’s name, has changed it from a snapshot of Australia, showing how our nation has changed over time, allowing us to plan for the future’ (Biddle, N Montaigne, M 2016), to something more in line with the controversial 1985 ‘Australia Card.’ The unique code that identifies each census effectively becomes the Australia Card’s ‘Universal Identification Number’ (UIN), which ‘will be the common ‘key’ to the databases of the agencies allowed to participate in the scheme, and will enable ‘matching’ of databases where authorised’ (Greenleaf, G, & Nolan, J 1986 p.410).

Then this happened…

Now I would hope that the security concerns of this type of identified, and rich data gathering would be apparent to all, but the aspect that stuck with me is that there is no option to opt-out. Much has been made of this situation with many seeing it as no different to the kinds, and amount of information that we routinely divulge to Facebook and the like. The obvious retort to this argument is that participation in social media is voluntary, the census however, is not, with the threat of ever increasing penalties for non-compliance. Case closed? I’m not so sure.

My uncertainty lies in the relationship we have with the respective platforms and/or institutions that gather our data. With the ABS I can sit atop my righteous indignation, knowing that I am being strong-armed into submission, but with say Microsoft, I opted-in with no coercion on their part (except for maybe advertising). I am in control.
At least I was, until I received an email from them regarding changes to their privacy policy, and what got me was the final paragraph…

They may as well have written ‘suck it up, or get out!’. Just like the census, I am left with no recourse except for compliance or punishment of sorts, where the penalty in this case is exclusion from a platform I have been using for over a decade and am tied to by the bonds of familiarity and habit (not to mention the fact that I pay for their services).

It would be easy to extend this situation to nearly any popular data gathering entity (Google, Facebook, twitter, etc.). We all opt-in to these services considering to some degree the powers they wield, and weigh that up against the perceived benefits we get from the relationship yet, ‘what is presented as a bargain actually lacks mutuality, disclosure or roughly equal bargaining power. In such cases, the bargaining frame will highlight the absence of the possibility of a bargain’ (Pallitto, RM 2013 p.5).

The rules governing how our data is handled lie on shifting sands, and there is little we can apparently do about it. We can opt-in, and ignore or tolerate the surveillance, or we can opt out and become pariahs in an inescapably technological world. It would seem that surveillance, in the form of data gathering, is not just becoming the norm but is also becoming compulsory.

Unsuprisingly, they still want me fill out the census...


Greenleaf, G, & Nolan, J 1986, 'THE DECEPTIVE HISTORY OF THE "AUSTRALIA CARD', Australian Quarterly, vol. 58, no. 4, pp. 407-425.

Pallitto, RM 2013, 'Bargaining with The Machine: A Framework for Describing Encounters with Surveillance Technologies', Surveillance & Society, vol. 11, no. 1/2, pp. 4-17.

Berg, C 2016, If you're worried about privacy, you should worry about the 2016 census, ABC, retrieved July 28 2016, http://www.abc.net.au/news/2016-03-15/berg-census-privacy-threat/7244744

Biddle, N Montaigne, M 2016, Explainer: what is the census, and why does it matter?, The Conversation, retrieved August 8 2016, http://theconversation.com/explainer-what-is-the-census-and-why-does-it-matter-62493


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