Monday, August 16, 2010

Nope, They Still Don't Get It

Zerbisias makes census-related assumptions

As Canada continues to debate the move by the Conservative government to replace Canada's mandatory long-form census with a voluntary version of the same survey, it becomes increasingly clear that some people simply don't understand what the debate is actually about.

Antonia Zerbisias is clearly one of those people.

Writing in an op/ed in the Toronto Star, Zerbisias addresses some of the privacy concerns raised about the long-form census. This has provided the impetus behind the move to replace it with a voluntary long-form census.

Zerbisias counters this argument by claiming that the alternatives are much worse, even repressive.

She notes that Northern European countries that have abandoned their census altogether rely on "administrative data" in order to get the information the government thinks it needs.

To make this point, Zerbisias refers to the Centre for Policy Alternatives.

“The census cannot track who has given what answer,” explains CCPA economist Armine Yalnizyan. “Talk about Big Brother: Administrative data are way more invasive of your privacy than anything that currently exists with the census."

“It’s deadly easy to figure out what a person’s personal history is—not only every five years but every month on some things," Yalnizyan adds. "An administrative database has your education history, your health history, all sorts of data that can be cross tabulated in a deadly way. You can go from utilities to all sorts of other things."

Zerbisias eventually goes on to refer to some of the questions that are on the long-form census, and explains how the government could acquire such information through administrative data.

Zerbisias is right about one thing: the use of administrative data to gather such information would be wholly unacceptable.

But Zerbisias has missed a key point: the question of whether or not the government needs such information in the first place; the question of whether or not the government belongs in some of the arenas this information would be used to govern.

Among the questions Zerbisias highlights are questions about language, culture, ethnicity, race, and ancestry. Other questions regard matters related to information Canadians already submit to the government -- such as income.

(Moreover, at least one of these questions -- that of whether or not an individual's personal information may be released in 92 years -- actually directly contradcits Yalnigzyan's claim that the collected information is linked to the identity of the citizen providing it.)

Many have raised the question of whether or not the government has any legitimate business in the fora of ethnicity, culture, or race. Fewer raise the question of whether or not the government legitimately has any role related to language -- particularly opponents of official bi-lingualism -- but some do ask such questions.

Replacing the mandatory long-form with a voluntary long-form will allow Canadians to vote with their data on such matters. Language questions have since been added to the short-form census (which will remain mandatory) and such data will be collected regardless. (You almost wrote "irregardless", didn't you? Shame, shame; that's not a word. -ed)

“This joined-up European approach would be difficult to attempt here, and probably unsellable politically once people realize what reliance on administrative data means," Yalnizyan admits. "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.”

So, summing up, Zerbisias argues that the abolition of the long-form census will lead to the gathering of such information coercively -- provided that the Conservative Party is voted out of government, and replaced with a party that has proven itself far more likely to collect this information by such means: such as the Liberal Party.

The detail that a future government could simply decide to replace the voluntary long-form census with a mandatory long-form seems to have been lost on Antonia Zerbisias altogether.


  1. Friends don't let friends read articles by Zerbisias.

  2. Sadly, someone has to read them, and come up with the answers.


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