This note considers the scope, scale and basis of official
registers in Australia regarding individuals. It also
highlights other data collection.
Some of those databases are maintained by government agencies.
Others have an official basis but are maintained by non-government
note covers -
- registers of births, deaths, marriages, divorces,
adoptions and wills
- passports, naturalisation, electoral rolls and pecuniary
- land, vehicle, firearm, pet and other ownership or
- medicine, law, accounting and other professions
- technical trades and occupations
- criminal convictions, watch lists, fingerprint databases,
security clearance and 'child worker' identification
- epidemiology, immunisation, organ donor and other
- identifiers such as the ABN and TFN and bankruptcy
- pensions, education, mail and other services
- government employees and the armed forces
- perceptions of the census and other mechanisms
page supplements discussion elsewhere on this site regarding
privacy, security and the Australia Card.
Debate in 1987 and 2005 about the Australia
Card recurrently featured claims that the Card
an unprecedented move to establish national registration
of all citizens
fundamentally erodes the patchwork of federal and state/territory
legislation and industry codes at the heart of the Australian
inconsistent with international privacy
a 'surveillance state' in which all activity will be
recorded by government officials.
perspective on such claims is to examine the patchwork
of databases (including formal registers) maintained by
federal, state/territory and local government agencies
or by nongovernment organisations on their behalf.
Those registers are significant because they have a mandatory
Australians for example are required to notify the government
of births and deaths, international travel involves a
government-issued passport, owning/using particular types
of property involves provision of information for a government
database, some professions require formal certification,
if you have a dog (or more than a certain number of chickens)
you require a licence, if you have a federal government
job your name is likely to be on an intelligence agency
database and so forth.
That has led some skeptics to echo Scott McNealy in asserting
that "your privacy is already gone, so get over it",
provoking the rejoinder that citizens (and others) have
a legitimate expectation that information provided for
official purposes will be effectively safeguarded and
That expectation is reflected in the federal Privacy
Act 1988 and in a range of other legislation, with
the Census Act for example featuring prohibitions
against release of 'identified' personal information;
census data is typically published in an aggregate and
what does government know?
What does government know about you?
As the following pages demonstrate, the answer is quite
a lot ... more than many people imagine.
Public sector agencies (at the federal, state/territory
and local government levels) collect a broad range of
information. Collection of some of that information has
a mandatory basis: individuals and other entities essentially
do not have a choice if they wish to access some
services or engage in particular activities.
However, although government knows a lot about you it
often does not know very well.
Collection is not the same as understanding. The existence
of collections is not the same as ease of access. It is
also no guarantee that information is accurate (at the
time of collection or afterwards) or complete.
It is important to note that much information is not systematically
provided to or accessed by other agencies. There are no
detailed whole-of-government statistics about what information
is collected, which entities access that information,
how frequently they access the information, why they access
it or its accuracy.
Much appears to remain in discrete 'silos' that are not
systematically data mined although information could be
retrieved for law enforcement or other purposes on a request
by request basis. Some registers, for example major epidemiological
databases, are essentially statistical in nature: personal-level
information is held offline.
Common identifiers such as the Tax File Number (TFN) facilitate
aggregation of information about particular individuals
or other entities that is found in different data collections.
Anxieties about misuse of such identifiers, including
the invisibility of much data matching by government and
appropriation by private sector bodies, lie at the heart
of much criticism of Australia Card schemes.
registration outside the public sector
Another perspective is to note the pervasiveness of commercial
referencing services, including businesses specialising
in residential tenancies, those with a broader interest
in financial services and those profiling consumer behaviour.
This site features a detailed note on such referencing,
complementing this note.
There is no comprehensive readily-accessible academic
study that itemises all the registers/databases and provides
a detailed analysis of associated legislation.
One reason for development of this note, which should
be regarded as an ongoing work in progress rather than
a definitive statement, is our interest in scoping what
information government collects and making sense of community
awareness of that collection.
the following pages
The following pages of this note highlight particular
registers, databases and data collection rationales. Over
time we will be adding information about the custodians/creators
of that information and about the legislation that provides
for maintenance of the registers.
next page (BDM)