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European census alternatives have privacy concerns of their own Add to ...

No wonder Lisbeth Salander made such short work of bad guys.

The Swedish computer-hacking superhero immortalized in Stieg Larsson's popular Millennium trilogy had only to tap a few buttons on her laptop to figure out her foes' addresses, incomes, jobs, ethnicities, identification numbers, marital statuses and yes, even the number of bedrooms in their homes.

It's all listed in citizen registries, a system now favoured in Scandinavian nations and other European countries over a mandatory long-form census.

Some critics of the long-form census in Canada cite as proof of the need for the change a July 17 article in The Economist that points to the European mining of existing databases as preferable to an outmoded "inquisition about everything from toilet and car ownership to race and religion."

But before Europe is held up as an example in showing censuses are archaic, a second look may be worthwhile. Canadians who fear the census is an intrusion of their privacy would swoon at data collection in countries such as the Netherlands and Denmark, where the government tracks every move from a new address to changes in income or education levels.

"It is an entirely different technique that is stunningly more invasive and presents a greater privacy challenge," said Ian McKinnon, Victoria-based chair of the National Statistics Council. "To our sensibilities, it's absolutely remarkable."

Canada's government announced plans to scrap the mandatory long-form census in favour of a voluntary survey, to growing opposition from economists, religious leaders, academics and home builders. If the decision holds, Canada would be the only country in the world with a voluntary census.

Other countries have axed the mandatory long-form census in favour of using existing administrative data. In Europe, that typically starts with a population registry, a list of every person in the country that often includes details on family composition. Participation is mandatory. Everyone has a personal identification, or citizen's, number. Any change of address must be registered with municipal authorities or police within a week. And all interactions with the government relating to health, job status, taxes, income levels and education are recorded and linked, providing a wealth of information that North American statisticians can only dream of.

"Registers can, under the right circumstances, provide very good information. But in a country where that's not the culture, they are extremely intrusive. You have to register every step of your life," said Ivan Fellegi, who was Statistics Canada's chief statistician for 22 years.

The approach, pioneered in Denmark in the 1970s, may be palatable in Europe because of a tradition of church registries, where heaps of personal information was publicly available, he said. In Canada, "my reading is that would not be acceptable. It certainly is much more intrusive because it's not protected by any confidentiality provisions comparable to Statistics Canada's, and it's really linking information from all kinds of sources without your knowledge. And it's all compulsory."

The European system is also "vastly" more expensive, he said. Currently, there are only two ways of tracking the population, he said: Europe's registry approach, and mandatory long-form censuses.

The Netherlands moved to a "virtual" census in 2001. Rather than a census form, it drew upon the population register, which includes data on household sizes, employee insurance, employment and earnings, income-tax assessments, social-assistance benefits and its labour-force survey. The new approach needs more production time but is more accurate, according to Statistics Netherlands.

Denmark ditched its old-fashioned census in favour of a register-based census 30 years ago. The change took place between 1970 and 1981, and was a "long and hard process," Lars Thygesen, director of sales and marketing for Statistics Denmark, said in an interview from Copenhagen. "I wouldn't say it's very easy to copy because it's also linked to national circumstances and administrative tradition."

The decade-long move came because the federal government realized it already possessed required information about its citizens though its tax, social, job, education and population registers. It now produces a report every year, most of which is free of charge to the public.

Mr. Thygesen is not in favour of the Tories' proposed changes. A voluntary approach "would have a large non-response. It would be very biased and you would not be able to use the information as a basis for sound decision making in a large number of sectors of society. It would destroy the value of the census. It wouldn't be a census any more."

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