Wednesday, 30 March 2011

Census sabotage?

Privacy or confidentiality concerns about the UK 2011 census? The census director's careful choice of words quoted in ComputerWeekly certainly seems noteworthy - "The UK Statistics Authority and the Office for National Statistics will never volunteer personal information for any non-statistical purpose…". So, they won't offer it to just anyone off their own bat, but they'll give it if - made to? Told to? Just asked to?

Apart from data protection or privacy worries, others are uncomfortable about the contractor engaged to process the census, Lockheed Martin. So the ingenious recommendations by Peace News on How to Fill In Your Census Form without Lockheed Martin Profiting may well be taken up by some.

It's (possibly unintentionally) absolutely hilarious - with suggestions like -

  • don't fill the census form in online
  • "accidentally change a digit of your telephone number and ditto for an email address"
  • send written queries to the FREEPOST address, perhaps direct to the Director
  • make small changes to names so you know the source of any "data protection failure"
  • and oh they might have scanning issues if

    "- The form was wrongly inserted in the envelope;

    - A different envelope has been used;

    - The outer bar code has been covered before the form was put in the envelope;

    - Some or all of the outer bar code’s white spaces were filled in with black pen or otherwise obliterate.."

  • not to mention that scanner paper feeds can "go temperamental" if there -

    "a) could be things like post-it notes, loose bits of paper and other detritus, stains, obviously unreadable barcodes, etc.

    b) could be of the form of additional staples, tears, folds, creases, spots of stickiness such as a marmalade spillage or a fragment of bluetack, improvised repairs of torn sheets with sellotape, additional pieces of paper glued to the side, etc"

  • bar codes on the form - "can be rendered ineffective by neatly filling in some or all of the white gaps between the bars of with a black pen or entirely covering with stickers – do not use post-it notes for they are easily removed. Do not allow any complete horizontal strip (however narrow) of the complete barcode to remain. (Many people “blacked in” or obliterated bar codes to great effect on Poll Tax forms in 1989-1991 and greatly increased their processing costs). Make sure you don’t miss any other codes and serial numbers."
  • tick both boxes "Male" and "Female", or “Jewish” and “Sikh”…
  • "Refusing to answer such questions [considered intrusive or privacy-invasive] could, in principle, cost you £1000 and will make no difference whatsoever to Lockheed Martin. It will be more effective to tick a few random boxes and write some random stuff in the text sections, then cross it all out again, and write something like “I don’t understand this. Please explain” This will take up time to deal with in the processing centre. You cannot be fined for not understanding a question or for being confused by it and you have made the effort."
  • "It is easy to make a mistake or even to forget to answer a question – we are all human after all. No problem: just write to the processing centre (Addressed to “Census Processing Centre” in whatever place name you remember from the form) to tell them to put it right on your form. A considerable amount of clerical work could be involved… If you supply a missing answer, keep a copy of your letter so that you can prove that you made a real effort to comply with your legal obligation to answer all questions."

I won't go on. You can finish the article direct, it's an amusing read.

Ironically, I know at least one person who's done some of the things they've suggested - not through any intention to muck up the form, but just because their situation is unusual (though not that uncommon), and they didn't think the form was clear or helpful enough as to how they were meant to complete it, hence crossings out galore!

Via Peter Judge, eWeek.

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