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Anonymity of census data questioned

SOME citizens are refusing to fill out census forms or are returning completed forms without their numerical identifier, arguing that the procedures of the 2011 census violate their right to privacy. Critics also charge that residents are poorly informed about the census procedures. These were at least some of the reasons why 40 census-takers in Bratislava’s Old Town district resigned from their jobs mid-way through the census while another 100 were reported to have quit in the Petržalka district of the capital. Concerns about anonymity seem to be the biggest source of controversy in the Slovakia's census.

SOME citizens are refusing to fill out census forms or are returning completed forms without their numerical identifier, arguing that the procedures of the 2011 census violate their right to privacy. Critics also charge that residents are poorly informed about the census procedures. These were at least some of the reasons why 40 census-takers in Bratislava’s Old Town district resigned from their jobs mid-way through the census while another 100 were reported to have quit in the Petržalka district of the capital. Concerns about anonymity seem to be the biggest source of controversy in the Slovakia's census.

Census-takers had already started circulating through their assigned areas, seeking to make an accurate count of residents and residencies in the decennial census, when questions surfaced about the anonymity and security of the personal data, amplified by a state privacy agency, and causing a large outcry of concern among Slovaks.

Sociologists, statisticians and even politicians rushed to soothe the anxieties of residents, many of whom now seem unsure whether to submit their personal information for the census – and some who have certainly decided not to participate.



Privacy concerns



Slovakia’s Statistics Office (ŠÚ), the primary organiser of the census, had been stressing that it is every resident's duty to take part in the 2011 census as well as provide accurate information as of the measurement point for the census – midnight between May 20 and May 21. At the same time, the ŠÚ had assured residents that personal data collected by the census-takers would be anonymous.

Many Slovaks were thus quite surprised when they received a numerical code that was associated with their census form – used either as a login for completing the electronic version of the form or as an identifier on the hard-copy form – and that census takers recorded the person’s name and address to match with the numerical code.

Concerns among citizens about potential misuse of their data were then magnified by some media outlets and bloggers. An article that circulated widely on the Slovak internet was entitled “Improved ŠtB practices – census of residents and residencies 2011” with the ŠtB referring to the communist-era secret police. Written by Ľubomír Kopáček, who described himself as security consultant, he wrote that “practices worthy of organised crime” have been put in place by the state to “invade the privacy of a citizen”.

A day after publishing the article, on May 17, Kopáček filed a complaint with Slovakia’s Office for Personal Data Protection (ÚOOÚ), which in turn issued a statement on May 20, only hours before residents were supposed to start filling out their census forms, asking the ŠÚ to immediately and fully inform the residents of Slovakia that the data collected for the 2011 census is not anonymous and to cancel residents’ obligation to place the numerical code on their respective census form.

ÚOOÚ stated that a resident can be directly identified after attaching the numerical code to the census form and the data is no longer anonymous.

“There is a big difference between a statement that the provider will secure the anonymity of the gathered personal data and a statement that the gathered data is anonymous,” ÚOOÚ wrote in its release sent to the media and published on its website.



Statistics Office responds



The head of the Statistics Office, Ľudmila Benkovičová, reacted to the statements of the ÚOOÚ by saying they were manipulative and that the ÚOOÚ was endangering the results of the census.

She added that legislation governing the 2011 census had been passed three years earlier and the ÚOOÚ had never objected to any of its provisions during interdepartmental or parliamentary review of the draft law or after the legislation was signed into law.

The ŠÚ wrote in its media release that by casting doubt on the use of the numerical code the ÚOOÚ was scaring Slovak residents who then were hesitant to provide data for the census.

The use of a numerical identifier is defined in the law on the 2011 census and, according to the ŠÚ, the numerical codes serve to prevent duplication in the census and ensure that each resident gets counted only once.

The ŠÚ explained that is why it needs to have each form identified in this way for a limited period of time and that only a restricted circle of ŠÚ staff and staff from the census’s technical support company have access to the forms with the numerical code.

“The data is protected, we have never leaked any data,” Benkovičová said, as quoted by the TASR newswire, adding that the ŠÚ maintains that the forms will remain anonymous.



Worries are out of place



While the two state-run offices were criticising each other, the heaviest impact of public concern and residents’ refusal to participate in the census was being felt by the census-takers who visit people’s homes and by the local authorities responsible for the smooth execution of the census in each municipality.

Meanwhile, politicians and experts stressed that the amount of data requested in Slovakia’s census is much less than what is collected in some other countries.

“In comparison with other European countries, the census gathers altogether less information and also includes fewer personal or other sensitive questions,” the Institute of Sociology of the Slovak Academy of Sciences wrote in a statement it released to support the census effort, asking residents not to be discouraged from filling out the forms.

The country’s leading sociologists stressed that the census provides statistical information that cannot be obtained any other way and that, historically, it has been a common practice.

After meeting Benkovičová at her request, Prime Minister Iveta Radičová, a sociologist by profession, called on state organisations and municipal authorities to cooperate with the Statistics Office. The prime minister also filled out her census forms during the meeting.

“In Slovakia every citizen is given a single-purpose code, the so-called identifier, while in other countries the census forms directly contain the name and surname, or even the personal [identification] number of the citizen,” the prime minister stated after the meeting.


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