You ain't seen nothing yet
23 July 2014 09:54 (South Africa)
Opinionista Ivo Vegter

Sense? Us?

  • Ivo Vegter
It's census time, and you're obliged by law to participate. There's a great deal the government wants to do with all it will learn about us. Worse, there's a great deal more it could do. And none of it is worth our submission.

In 1929, in south-eastern Nigeria, a famous revolt took place. A women named Nwanyeruwa took exception to being counted. She knew instinctively, as did thousands of freedom-loving resistance figures over the centuries, that registering herself, her land and her livestock holdings could only ever be used against her.

Men had recently been subjected to a census by local functionaries, only to be taxed by the colonial powers, and Nwanyeruwa well knew that women, who were so important to the agriculture, trade and economic prosperity of the community, would be next. She also understood that nobody would get any richer from this.

Thousands of women flocked to her banner, and protested the census in song and dance. They employed a brilliant non-violent tactic known as “sitting”, which involved shadowing the targets of protests and relentlessly aping their every move, until they begged to be rid of these troublesome and independent-minded women.

The incident became known as the Igbo Women's War, and inspired many subsequent peaceful revolts against being counted, and for freedom, in Nigeria.

Two thousand years ago, the Zealots resisted the census of Caesar Augustus for much the same reasons. They were the smart ones. The count arguably cost at least one famous citizen of Roman-occupied Nazareth his life, despite his exhortation that one should render unto Caesar the things which are Caesar's – by which he meant a share of the things people worked for themselves.

Not all census resistance is based on opposition to taxation. The German authorities used sophisticated computer systems to maintain census data. Notoriously, this data was used to round up Jews and track concentration camp prisoners.

Despite fears of tyranny among the American revolutionaries who declared independence from the British crown, the enumeration of citizens was mandated in the US Constitution. The extent of the data gathered grew rapidly from the simple count that was needed to ensure fair representation in Congress, and by the end of the 19th century included all manner of descriptive data regarding identity, occupation and wealth, social circumstances, health and personal beliefs. Not only was it used to impose new taxes but during World War II, the supposedly confidential census data of 1940 was used to round up and imprison people, including full citizens, who happened to be of Japanese descent.

In 1972, the British government had drawn up top-secret plans to forcibly remove Irish Catholics from Northern Ireland, based on census data. The plans were never executed, but the potential for using census data to violate the individual rights of citizens was made abundantly clear when the memorandum was later leaked.

Business interests have been after census data since the 19th century too. Conducting voluntary surveys is expensive and time-consuming, so companies would much rather have the government use its coercive powers and deep pockets to do their market research for them. Detailed data about consumption habits and the possession of modern conveniences are now a routine part of census questionnaires. I still clearly recall being puzzled as a child about why the government could possibly want to know whether we had a washing machine. Was it going to give us one if we answered “no”?

Today, census data forms a key part of the market intelligence used by companies to target consumers. Stats SA, which conducts the census, makes no bones about it: “The South African government as well as private sector needs accurate information...”

Alarmingly, public census data can be combined with other publicly available data, using so-called “microdata analysis”, to pinpoint individual identity. Marketers and privacy experts refer to this practice as “re-identification”.

This risk is not limited to targeted marketing and other corporate invasion of privacy, but can also be exploited by identity thieves. Even if they do not manage to corrupt any of the thousands of people employed to conduct a census – what's the chance? – they can use the publicly available data to reconstruct identities. For most people, an astonishingly small set of data values – such as place of residence, date of birth and gender – is sufficient to identify them uniquely.

According to Stats SA, the questionnaire will ask an astounding 75 questions, including, “questions on demographics (sex, age, language, etc.), migration (where you live, have you moved), general health and functioning, parental survival, income, education, employment, fertility, access to services and mortality. There is one question on income, and it does not ask your specific income, but asks you which range it falls into.”

It adds, ominously: “Please note that section 16 of the Statistics Act obliges respondents to answer all questions asked of them.”

Germany, in response to its own terrible history of private data abuse by the state, has enacted far-reaching privacy protection laws. These laws grant citizens the right to protect their data from others, including from the government of the day.

Not so in South Africa. Without qualms about the historical abuse of racial classification, for example, the government continues the bureaucratic traditions of its authoritarian predecessors. One wonders whether census-takers will carry pencils to perform the notorious test.

It will cost billions to conduct the census. The original budget of R1.2 billion has already been exceeded, and Stats SA is reportedly asking the National Treasury for an additional R700 million to fund the 130 offices, 6,000 vehicles, 156,000 special-purpose ID cards, and more than two million advertising posters. That's a lot of money that could have been spent on more pressing needs than keeping tabs on citizens.

Despite assurances from government about how safe it is to permit strangers in bright yellow outfits to enter your premises, criminals have already cashed in, posing as census “enumerators” to wheedle their way into homes for purposes of robbery. Yet Trevor Manuel told Parliament that of the remaining risks, “Perhaps the greatest risk is that people do not voluntarily participate in being counted – they shut the doors, let out the dogs and turn out the lights.”

The argument that it creates jobs is also a nonsense designed to defend the indefensible. This is as valid as the notion that digging and filling in holes creates jobs, and that doing so with a spoon is better yet, because it creates even more jobs. It is as much a fallacy as the idea that any spending by government – such as on census posters – is automatically good for the economy. Every rand given to the poster printer is a rand taken from someone else, who could have invested it productively, or spent it on something he actually needs.

The government argues that it needs the data for policy purposes, but the truth is that most legitimate policy questions can be answered perfectly well without the detailed statistical knowledge a census provides. The government doesn't need to coerce reams of data out of citizens to permit a free people to engage in productive activity and unhindered trade with each other. It doesn't even need data to know that if it subsidises something, it will drive better alternatives out of business, and if it taxes something, it will become less productive.

A government needs this level of data only for central planning and control. In their own words: “The information collected will give planners, both inside and outside of government, an accurate picture of how many people are living in the country and their living conditions as well as access to basic services.”

As free-market theorists know, and governments empirically demonstrate, it is not within the power of a government to deliver “a better life for all”. Therefore, even if the data never gets abused in the senses mentioned earlier, no good can come of surrendering our privacy to the government's interrogators. There is only downside risk.

Ironically, the government has already overstepped the boundaries of personal privacy and individual freedom to such an extent that detailed population data can easily be extracted from the RICA register, FICA forms, voter rolls, birth certificates, medical records, vehicle licences, ID databases and Google Maps. And when it says the census won't ask for ID numbers or bank account details, it can easily cross-reference its existing records to fill in the blanks.

The photo on the Census 2011 website shows a single individual in sharp focus, lifted out of a blurred background of other people. Study it. Then consider whether you really want a government – any government – to have such a clear picture of who you are.

“I know where you live,” is a phrase that should only be expected from creditors and criminals. The government of a free society has no business tracking you down. DM


  • Ivo Vegter
IvoVegterBW

Ivo Vegter is a columnist and the author of Extreme Environment, a book on environmental exaggeration and how it harms emerging economies. He approaches issues from the perspective of individual liberty and free markets. He grew up in the deep south of Johannesburg, and learnt his politics reading the Weekly Mail and Vrye Weekblad at Wits University during the early years of the country's transition to democracy. He recently left the city for the lower cost of living of Knysna, where he continues to write about everything under the sun. He is always right.

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