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EDITORIAL

Please allow us to count you

THE MASSIVE machinery of the state has been set in motion to siphon sensitive personal information out of its residents in order to store it until those driven by an insatiable thirst to control demographic trends find some way to use it – at least, this is how some Slovaks are interpreting the nationwide census.

THE MASSIVE machinery of the state has been set in motion to siphon sensitive personal information out of its residents in order to store it until those driven by an insatiable thirst to control demographic trends find some way to use it – at least, this is how some Slovaks are interpreting the nationwide census.

The fact over 100 people recently gave up their jobs as census-takers in Bratislava signals that the discourse over what critics call a lack of any guarantee of anonymity, has in part turned into hysteria.

Those who have given up serving the state’s ambition to count its citizens, houses and apartments said that they were discouraged by people’s distrust, finding them unwilling to open their doors or even talk to them. Residents have also been returning census forms without their numerical identifier, apparently fearful of a loss of privacy.



Before anyone interprets this as a sign of a former communist nation’s hypersensitivity to loss of privacy, it is worth noting that various state institutions already have almost all the information they are seeking in the census.

Slovakia’s statistics authority did not invent the census and Slovakia did not even exist as an independent country when other nations had already begun diligently counting their citizens, soldiers, land and buildings.

Yet the concerned citizens should not be blamed. The costly campaign ahead of the census was a rather lame underestimation of people’s concerns about privacy issues, disseminating the message: let yourself be counted; it is important for your future. When concerns over the multi-million-euro project mounted, politicians rushed to make last-minutes calls on people to submit their census data.

Ľubomír Kopáček, who describes himself as a security consultant, poured fuel on the fire by describing the census as the “improved practices of the ŠtB”, a reference to the communist-era secret police, and suggested that “practices worthy of organised crime” have been put in place by the state to “invade the privacy of the citizen”. He also filed a complaint with the country’s personal data protection authority and briefly became a media darling.

The Office for Personal Data Protection (ÚOOÚ) unexpectedly agreed and called on the Statistics Office (ŠÚ) to immediately inform residents that the data collected for the census would not be anonymous – in direct contradiction to the ŠÚ’s previous declarations – and to cancel the obligation to place a numerical code on the census form. The ÚOOÚ stated that a resident can be directly identified after attaching the numerical code to the census form and this means the data is no longer anonymous.

This is in fact a typical case of state institutions simply not doing their job. Why had the ÚOOÚ not taken any preventive measures to see whether the mega-collection of data was in line with the principles it is expected to guard? The privacy watchdog in fact suggested that it believed the statistics authority when it said it would collect nothing more than statistical data. One wonders what type of data collection would attract the full attention of the ÚOOÚ if not a nationwide census.

The idea of a numerical identification code obviously did not emerge until just before the launch of data collection and the statistics authority did not treat the information as top secret.

Nevertheless, the ŠÚ obviously did not present a full picture of the census to citizens: it did not explain that for a certain time, for a limited number of people, the data will not be fully anonymous, even if in its final form the data will not be attached to anyone's specific name.

In the age of Facebook and social networking sites, people share all kinds of information; one can track the number of their children, where they go on holiday and even their negative comments about their bosses at clearly identifiable workplaces. Thus it might seem strange that suddenly they panic over having to tell the government whether they have an internet connection or a computer.

In principle, state institutions should have done a much better census job – perhaps then they could have expected residents to have done a better job of filling out the forms in return, thus helping the state to get a clearer snapshot of demographic trends, and more.

But if the state had done a better job of using the data it already possesses, it could have avoided the whole drama, saved money and not had to face accusations of using practices of the ŠtB.


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