Monthly Archives: July 2010

Census Privacy is the Harper gov’t’s Girl-Power Barbie

I’m going to go ahead and assume anyone who’s reading this blog knows about the Canadian government’s recent decision to scrap the mandatory long-form national census, and attempt to replace it with a voluntary “National Household Survey” (NHS).

I’m going to assume you all know that the information from long form census is used for all kinds of governmental and non-governmental planning, including social programs, financial allotments for various uses, and, yes, library service planning.

I’m going to assume that readers all have the basic statistical proficiency (that the leaders of the Conservative party apparently lack) to know that a mandatory survey with near 100% compliance given to 20% of the population will almost certainly have greater validity that a voluntary survey of 33% of the population, because even if the absolute numbers of responses are the same under both surveys the response rate in the latter will almost certainly be lower and thus reflect self-selection/non-response bias. This, by the way, is a neat way to create policy-based evidence.

I’m also going to assume you know that the Tories are holding fast to their position, even in the face of the Chief Statistician of Canada’s resignation and overwhelming outcry from people who are not always allies on the issues.

Throughout this whole kerfuffle, the Harper government has insisted that the change is due to privacy concerns. They insist that the long form is too invasive. That people think the state should not be requiring that individuals report such personal information as the number of bedrooms in their dwellings and how we travel to work. Etc.

You probably also know that little evidence has been produced to back up the claim that many people are concerned about the invasiveness of the questions on the long-form (although in the most recent 2006 census there were refuseniks on the basis of the gov’t subcontracting census work to Lockheed, an issue that is going unmentioned today).

Privacy, eh?

Privacy, my foot! This change has nothing to do with privacy. Scrapping the long form does incredibly little to improve privacy of Canadians, and in fact may even make our personal data less private and secure.

Here’s some info about the long-form census, and voluntary StatsCan surveys, in terms of privacy. All of this is written to the best of my knowledge, so if anyone works with census data or has StatsCan connections and can clarify or expand on any of the below points, please do let me know.:

Public Release of Data

Full census data is normally released to the public after 92 years. Since the passage of S-18 in 2005, there has been an opt-in check box on the census, which must be checked in order to release that data after 92 years. Opt-in, while frustrating to researchers and genealogists who wanted opt-out instead, is a pretty high standard of privacy protection. Voluntary surveys are not released to the public, ever. Thus, it would seem that the NHS would be more private, 93 years from now, than the census. Or, rather, it would seem so if Tony Clement hadn’t assured us that they were changing things so the NHS will also be available after 92 years No word as of yet on whether the NHS will have an opt-in box.

Commercial Interest Intervention

Commercial firms do not have access to the census planning process. Commercial firms as well as non-profit researchers may purchase modules  for many voluntary surveys from Stats Can (e.g., the Canadian Community Health Survey), however. Should the long form census remain a voluntary survey, I would not be surprised at all if business were eventually granted access to this survey too. In fact, I would expect it, if the survey loses the “sacredness” of the National Census.

Privacy Safeguards

While we might never be fully confident that stewards of any data could never possibly misuse it, the census is subject to privacy safeguards above and beyond other surveys. Disclosure for any purpose prior to the 92-year blackout period would be subject to fines and penalties under the Statistics Act, which requires StatsCan employees working with this data to be sworn to secrecy. Unlike other StatsCan surveys, the Census is not available to researchers outside StatsCan as a full microdata file. It is also not eligible to be linked with other databases, unlike other data sources including other StatsCan surveys. Again, should the long-form census turn into and assume the norms of a voluntary survey, these safeguards will likely be lost.

The Short Form & Privacy

The still-mandatory short form, which nobody appears to be speaking out against, provides plenty of information on which to base discrimination (name, age, sex, marital status including whether partner is same or opposite sex, first language learned). Sexual orientation is pretty personal and invasive to ask everyone to disclose on a mandatory basis, if you ask me — perhaps more so than many of the questions on the long-form. First language-learned gives a lot of ethnicity & immigration information, even without the long form asking about where your ancestors came from.

As comment poster LindL on the Worthwhile Canadian Initiative blog writes, of the move to scrap the long form but retain the short form,

“If it’s wrong, it’s wrong. What you’re arguing is equivalent to ‘Stealing is wrong. So I’m not going to steal a car, instead I’ll just steal a bicycle’.”

Harper’s Privacy = Girl-Power Barbie

The Harper government is using privacy as a red herring here. Calling these changes to the census good for privacy is like calling a “girl power Barbie” feminist – in other words disingenuous cooptation of a real issue in order to improve market share. I fear that to take the Harper/Clement argument at face value – that this change is about privacy – is to play right into their hands.

What is the Harper government’s interpretation of Census privacy? Well, apparently that applies to the government need/ability to make private and unseen the concerns of Canadians regarding the census changes! The long-form census, although second top rated issue by participants in the recent digital economy econsultation, was buried on the site(Although I wouldn’t vote for this very specific issue to be the top concern of Canada’s digital economy, I am quite impressed that it got so many votes, continuing to add votes and hold second place *even after it was buried* on the site and could only be accessed via a direct URL.)

As a privacy and social justice advocate, the long-form census is not what I am worried about. There are a lot of less secure sources of data out there, with less redeeming social value to worry about. For me, the benefits of  responsible, privacy-sensitive data collection and stewardship sometimes outweigh the risks, but I can respect opposing opinions.

It’s one thing if you oppose any government collection of personal data. That I can respect. I think it’s a perspective that usually comes from a position of privilege, and I don’t take this stance myself, but I can respect it if you think the long form should be scrapped along with a whole bunch of other things, on principle. But THIS? Only scrapping the long form? That is not about privacy. If you want to campaign for the end of all government information gathering, fine, but the census is really not the place to start. And don’t think for a moment that the Conservative government is on your side  an end to government information-gathering

However, in a practical sense, this change is not improving the privacy of Canadians in any measurable way, and is in fact eroding the privacy of those who answer the voluntary survey as well as hurting those who don’t by virtue of providing a skewed and unreliable demographic profile of Canada.

Silver Lining?

On the upside, if they do go ahead with this plan to convert the long-form to voluntary National Household Survey, I think it’s likely that whoever is in power in 2016 will change it back. In that case, while we’ll lose the 2011 data for planning and research purposes, it will be interesting to see how and to what extent making a survey voluntary creates deviations from trends (i.e., we may be able to tease out which subgroups will & won’t respond to a voluntary survey). A natural experiment in the making!

-Greyson

ps – For whatever it’s worth, I agree with Sandra Finley that the census software etc should not be subcontracted to Lockheed Martin – much like I do not think the BC MSP data should be with Maximus. But that’s another kettle of fish.

pps- Tracey over at datalibre.ca has been researching the census as part of her PhD research and has been chronicling this recent debacle quite comprehensively.

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Filed under ethics, government, government information, inclusion/exclusion, privacy

BCLA Letter Regarding G20 & Intellectual Freedom

I am really proud of the British Columbia Library Association for writing and publishing such an eloquent letter about the “unprecedented curtailment of civil liberties that took place at the June 2010 meeting of the G20 in Toronto.”

While some may shy away from library association advocacy on issues that are not immediately and obviously tied to library existance, the BCLA connects the dots between intellectual freedom as a core value of librarianship, and the curtailing of free expression in public space.

When the media is silenced, when citizens are not allowed to peacably gather in public spaces or express their opinions, this is an issue for libraries and librarians.

Just as the definition of librarianship today must expand beyond the bricks-and-mortar library building to include librarians who work in communities and doing other types of skilled information work, so must library advocacy not be confined to advocating for library funding and the library book rate. As librarians it is up to us to advocate for and uphold the core values of our profession.

Other coverage of the letter: Sam Trosow, Post-G20 Bulletin

-Greyson

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Filed under democracy, government, Intellectual freedom, The Profession

Net neutrality & tiered pricing structures

It’s come to my attention that AWMarco at Team Awesome wrote about the recent Harpham and Greyson net neutrality articles in Feliciter (<– pdf warning) and seems to think that I conflate the issues of data packet neutrality and access to unlimited bandwidth in my article.  I don’t agree that I conflated those issues in my article, although I concede the AWMarco and I may have different definitions of “throttling” and I should have clearly defined the term in my article.

I stand by my statement that a neutral net is both content- and protocol-agnostic. I do not agree that being protocol-agnostic necessarily means letting one high-bandwidth user eat up your entire network. I pay my ISP for a certain mb/s speed and a certain GB/month data limit per month, and I do not expect that my use will be tampered with as long as I stay within the limits of my subscription – no matter what (legal) content I access or publish, and no matter what protocols I may use. If my ISP has oversold their capabilities it is on them to increase capacity otherwise come clean with customers.

I do, however, think the issues of content neutrality and tiered pricing for different levels of service are commonly conflated. Given that I actually found the above blog post while writing a long email to someone just last week about how tiered pricing structures are not the same thing as net neutrality, I figured I ought to set the record straight by repurposing some of those emailed words for the blog.

Here’s the thing:

Some people do include tiered pricing (paying more for faster access/more bandwidth) under the umbrella of “non neutrality.” I do not, and to my knowledge my library associations have not either. Rather, we have focused on differential treatment of types of info or protocols. I recommend staying with this tighter definition, and not getting into the area of tiered pricing for speed.

While tiered pricing is not equitable, it does not (IMO) violate the
principle of network neutrality, which I define as a network that is
neutral to the info sent over it, in accordance with common carriage.
To extend a metaphor, I can send you a book via air mail instead of surface mail and get it there faster if I pay Canada Post more $, but it’s not okay for Canada Post charge me more $ for sending a book of political propaganda than a book of fairy tales (or a French book more than an English book) sent via the same mode.

Canada Post should not treat my package differently based on what is inside. The fact that some people cannot afford express air mail prices, while inequitable, is a different issue than slowing down mail because you don’t like what’s inside.

It’s a little tricky, in terms of semantics, because sometimes you do hear people use “tiered pricing” in terms of access to portions of the Internet — in a non-neutral net an ISP might hypothetically charge end-users a premium for non-throttled or non-blocked access to the Internet. But mostly when you hear “tiered pricing” you think paying more for faster Internet access, which is pretty much the norm right now, and not usually included in the net neutrality basket.

I know that excessive prices for decent bandwidth can be a library issue, certainly.  That’s why we have the CAP program, much like library book rate with Canada Post. However, when we’re talking about neutrality, I think we should steer clear of talking about tiered pricing for speed, and focus on content/protocol neutrality at every access level.

-Greyson

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Filed under net neutrality, Other blogs, technology

Public Libraries and the Role of Information

When the topic of libraries arise in communities, one of the first responses from members of the public has usually been books.   However, over the last while, I have noticed a shift in the public perception of the role libraries can play in communities.  I am starting to hear the community talk about the library (and library staff in the community discovering community need), as a place for community information.  This includes a place to inspire (or be inspired), to gather, and to seek, provide, or create information.

I have been thinking about what this means, and what potential application the community led approach (see here or here)  would have on this vision by community.  First I have to ask myself, how do people seek information?

People can gather information from a number of sources (none of which libraries necessarily have a monopoly on).  Sources may include:

  • Conversations (two way conversations – or large group conversations)
    • For example – creating a social space for larger conversations for immigrants and long time residents of a community.  These conversations allow for a sharing of information – and assist in integrating both immigrants and long time residents… they begin to develop relationships, trust, and share information.
  • Information out (a teaching style where people are passive recipients of information from ‘experts’)
    • E.g. Outreach and most programming in library branches
  • Written materials (this landscape is changing rapidly – especially for books)
    • Books, serials, etc.
  • Visual
    • For example… I was talking with a branch manager the other day, who talked about how quiet her branch was one day.  She began thinking about her networks and friends in the community: since they weren’t at the library where were they?  With the World Cup on – guess what – they were at the local pub.  Then it dawned on her, people were seeking information in a social setting, and they identified the pub as the social location where they could gather with other fans to watch the game.  So, why not also livestream the games into the branch (we have the technology)… also making the library a place where people can gather to watch events? (especially if they were under 19 – the legal drinking age, and didn’t drink)..
  • Audio (e.g. CD’s, DVD etc)
  • Computers  (internet, web 2.0 and now 3.0, and a mixture of some of the above)  ect..
  • And a relatively new source of information for communities – instead of coming to the library to retrieve information, people are coming to the library to create information.  A number of things can be done with this community generated information – it can be displayed, catalogued (yes – librarians would enjoy that!), stored etc..

If we as library staff decide to be involved, and position the library, as a place where community is actively involved in the information process – staff along with community will need come to an understanding of the role they each play in the interaction.  For community and libraries, evaluation will be key.  Only community members, as participants, creators and consumers of information, can define what worked (did not work) when they are trying to satisfy their information needs.  Thus, community members involvement in the entire process is essential.

This new vision for libraries would also mean that libraries would have to look at repositioning job descriptions and duties for all library staff.  This mainstreaming process [integrating community-led services across all aspects of library services – “where work is not just bolted on” and assigned to a few staff, Vincent, 2001] would build upon library staff expertise of sorting and retrieving pre-existing information – to facilitators of information creation and exploration.   What a dynamic and exciting future libraries would hold, not only for our communities, but also for our staff!

~ Ken

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Filed under community development, public libraries