back to article Your census data will be kept secret - except from MI5, police, courts etc

Like you, I have received my 2011 census form from the Office of National Statistics (ONS). The cover page prominently states, in bold, "Your personal information is protected by law. Census information is kept confidential for 100 years". Like you, perhaps, I have taken this statement at face value. However, preparing for our …


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  1. Anonymous Coward
    Black Helicopters

    So ?

    Anyone who had any illusion the census was in any way confidential or secret is living in cloud-cuckoo land.

    Back in 1991 (quick history lesson here, Tory government was ramming through the poll tax, aka "community charge", so needed completely accurate household occupancy records) I had a friend at Uni. They lived away from home, but where they lived was not on any official record - they used their home address for all correspondence. When their houses census form was filled in, they put themselves down, with a slight misspelling, and added (fictional) middle name.

    2 weeks later there was a poll tax demand for that name.

    1. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      FOAF Tale BS

      I've heard so many variation on this story that it gets tedious. One thing I've ner seen is anything to corroborate the tale.

      1. Anonymous Coward
        Anonymous Coward


        I was there. I saw the demand.

        In the pre IT era, I used to enjoy using ficticious middle names, to trace where the junk mail came from. But in those days, there was no concept of "marketing preferences", so stuff all you could do about it.

  2. Ian Tresman

    Who cares?

    100 years is too long anyway. In the USA, the length is 70 years, which seems fair, and a huge help to genealogists.

    Of course all the other censuses that are released online, are sent off for scanning before the statutory time has expired.

    1. Intractable Potsherd Silver badge
      Thumb Down

      I am soooo tired ...

      ... of the "genealogists need this data" argument. We should not be making decisions based on making things easy for some sad hobbyist in the future.

  3. eJ2095


    Give it a few weeks it will appear on a Bus/Train/Plan/Taxi on a USB stick... would have added boat but nar

  4. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    Just like your General Election voting slips

    Contrary to popular belief, the same is true of your "anonymous" voting slips in the General Election. Every one has a serial number that is cross-referenced to you personally. This is how the MI5 retrieved a list of all Communist Party voters in by-gone years. See:

    Gordon Winter: Inside BOSS and After, Lobster journal #18 (Oct 1989)

    1. Anonymous Coward

      Since when was that popular belief?

      I thought it was common knowledge.

      I've got a mate who contrinually says "Contrary to popular belief..." only then to announce something he's just found out that everyone already knew, or occasionally wrong.

      Such as "Contrary to popular belief, leaves are green,"

      I particularly liked his "Contrary to popular belief the French Concorde actually stops at Heathrow to pick up more passengers."

    2. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward


      The New Statesman was a sitcom, not a documentary.

  5. Anonymous Coward
    Black Helicopters

    Not really news

    When I completed a security assesment over 20 years ago, the interviewers were able to tell me that I attended a party conference by the communist party, although it seems that I voted Conservative in the elections, can I explain my actions?

    After my shock that they got that info on me (I knew that votes could be traced, but entrance into a conference?), I just told them that a group of us just turned 18 and went along for a laugh. That seemed OK to the security services who then thought that we were good eggs.

    I'm afraid that confidentiality doesn't mean what the dictionary says.

    Posted anonymously, even though it probably isn't!

    1. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward


      had a similar experience, only scarier... it was US officials who knew about a rally I'd attended in the UK (I'm a Brit now living in the US and was applying for a civilian contract with the US Navy at the time) - this was pre 9/11 so who knows what it's like now

  6. The Cube

    Perhaps it would be more honest of the politicians

    To require the population to attend their local Police station once per month for a bottom inspection whilst their local council, NCP and Experian search their home for anything incriminating, personal or marketable.

    At least then the Daily Mail readers might start to understand what privacy was before our government killed it and the rest of us can tell them that it is all OK because "If just one child....."

  7. AndrueC Silver badge
    Thumb Down


    Someone is going to find out what I put in the census. Well..duh. The government asked me for information about myself. I treated it like it was going to be public knowledge anyway. You'd have to be pretty naive to think it would remain secret regardless of what it said on the cover.

    government promises never do amount to much so why should 'We won't peek' be any different?

  8. Anonymous Coward
    Black Helicopters


    Full marks to the reg for bringing this to public attention. For those saying 'so what?', don't say you weren't warned when we run out of oil and money in the next couple of decades, and you find your name is on the list.

  9. Tim Parker

    Section 39

    'Section 39 of the Statistics and Registration Service Act 2007 is, so the Act says, about "Confidentiality of personal information"; in practice the section achieves the precise opposite.'

    Regardless of whether you agree with any of the provisions of Section 39, this statement is clearly nonsense; that section is, in fact, all about the confidentiality of personal information - you might not like what it says but that's another matter... even it consisted solely of the statement

    "There shall be no confidentiality of this information at all"

    it would still be *about* confidentiality of personal information and not, for example, related to basket weaving or frog spawn. I'm not entirely sure what "the precise opposite" would be - presumably discussing anything other than the confidentiality of information or not discussing it at all.

  10. Ian 35
    Paris Hilton

    Who gives a toss about genealogists?

    Aside from the obvious point that people alive in 2011 leave a massively greater document footprint than people alive in 1911, so the idea that the census data will be all that provides information to your descendants in 2111 is faintly preposterous, why is the government funding something for the benefit of bores? The man who tells you that he's looked up his second cousins great grandfather in the census of whenever is a man you don't want to sit next to at lunch, and the government should no more concern itself about boring people and their boring hobbies with regard to census than it should underwrite model railways, orchid growing or geo-cacheing. Other people's hobbies are their concern, and if they're boring to me, well, at least they're enjoying it. But the idea that I should waste my time filling in a form for the benefit of bores yet to be born is laughable. The census has many uses and to me, the basic demographic information about me isn't interesting enough (or private enough) that I'm going to get worked up about it. But if the benefits is about Family Tree Bore Monthly readers, well, count me out.

    Paris, because she knows who _her_ father is.

  11. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward


    Isn't that just the law anyway? If the police come knocking you generally have to give them the information, they may need to get permission from a judge but... yeah.

    What intrigues me about the census is how pointless it was, it didn't ask anything particularly useful, sure how many people live there, are any of you disabled, do you have a job. That's about it, I thought it was supposed to help get a better idea about the general makeup of the population and local areas, there were no questions about social habits, earnings, health/eating habits, or anything else of any interest. What kind of industry you're in, etc etc etc.

    And the question about if you'll have any visitors on the 27th of March is just weird.

    Looked more like a precursor to rebanding properties.

  12. The Fuzzy Wotnot

    WTF is the problem? Nothing on the census I am worried about!

    Everything on the census is available in a dozen Gov DBs already, so I am already f**ked! Stop making such a fuss about every single peice of personal info. Yes there is a time to fight the power, when they want DNA for the sake of it, that's wrong, but the census data is so vague as to be almost useless. Yes I know a small request today is a bigger request tomorrow and the year after, so you simply have to be vigilant, but just ease up a bit. The census data is already available all over the shop, the Gov just can't be arsed to collate it, they make us do it instead.

    From what I rememeber of the census form...

    I told them my name and my family's names, nothing that can't be found in the election register.

    I told them where I worked, well that's down at the tax office plus a heap more stuff about my earnings that ISN"T on the census!

    I told them my job title, ditto above.

    I told them how long it takes to get to work, well a simple DB search on some quality geo data would tell you how far my home address to my workplace address is and via which nodes I can make it.

    I told them how many rooms my house has, well that's with the land registry with a copy of the deeds to my house.

    It never asked for the age of my kids, simply their name and if they are in full education, that's available with the local education authority and heap more data about them too no doubt.

    Yes, I appreciate you need to be vigilant, you can't simply pass all your data along. No I wouldn't want the Gov to know about what me and the Missus get up after lights out but they most likely know from my credit card purchases at various online and highstreet stores. Some things are worth fighting over, the census is one to let it just go!

    1. Spicer


      Yes, all this information is already within the hands of the government BUT so far, as you aptly described, it's totally disjointed in countless different databases, all governed by different rules and regulations.

      What the census allows is to pull everything under one roof, at the mercy of a simple select statement, and governed by only one piece of regulations.

    2. Anonymous Coward

      But you gotta start the fight somewher

      If you leave it till later they will think it's ok to get this bit so why complain about that bit.

      Where if you fight over the small s**t now, they will think hold on there, if they fight like cats and dogs over info that is avail anywhere else. Just think of the hastle and trouble to get the other stuff later. So they don't do it

      (maybe............ BB is outhere)

  13. nsld

    The more interesting and dangerous part

    Is the "researchers" which will be nothing more than a revnenue generation operation in the same way the DVLA sell your data and the NDNAID databases lets researchers trawl the DNA.

    Given who the data can be shared with we should be able to opt out of the sharing with researchers

  14. Ian Ferguson
    Black Helicopters

    Lockheed Martin

    I'm less concerned about the government abusing my personal information (I'm sure they have most of it already), than I am about war profiteers Lockheed Martin handling it.

    This is why I returned my census with details of my cat, instead of me:

    (Shiva the cat previously starred in a dispute I had with Paypal, which the Reg covered)


      Thus ... the US Patriot Act

      .... makes any assurances that the data will be confidential to the UK a complete nonsense.

  15. David 45

    Too far by far

    I think it's absolutely outrageous how much info. you're supposed to give. If it's for statistical purposes (allegedly), a lot of it could be anonymous. I thoroughly resent the fact that it seems to be a legal requirement and this appears to open the door for more and more intrusive questions to be added each time it's done.

    1. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      Legal Requirement

      The legal requirement apparently comes from our good friends the EC. There that makes you feel totally secure doesn't it?

      Thought not.

      1. Intractable Potsherd Silver badge
        Thumb Down

        I didn't realise ...

        ...that we were in the EC in 1920 (see the Census Act 1920).

  16. Nebulo
    Black Helicopters

    Now, there's a surprise

    Wow. So the government whose "regulation" of CCTV will not remove a single camera now reveals that "confidential" means "between you and us and whoever the hell we feel like giving it to"? Who'd a thunk it?

    Never mind, eh. One day, you'll be able to tell your grandchildren what it was like to live in a free country. Assuming, of course, that you can get the proper State authorisation to talk to children.

  17. Code Monkey

    I'm going to write mine as untidily as possible

    ...then cover it with jam

  18. TRT Silver badge

    Lockheed Martin UK who...

    are funded by the CIA and have, by their own admission, under their belt (or in R&D) software that can predict civil unrest, systems that can tell you what plane is where and who is on it, the command, control and communication system of the largest UK police force in the city of government, and machinery that can read postal addresses for marking and sorting?

    Mind you, they did the 2001 census as well, so it's a bit too late now.

  19. Mike Richards

    Such faith

    'After all, those individuals intent on undermining a Parliamentary democracy are unlikely to want to vote in one.'

    I'd stake money on someone saying the same in the Weimar Republic.

  20. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    What If?

    As the census form can be completed on line what would happen if one of the groups aligned to denial of service attacks, or similar, (Anonymous?) broke the personal internet access code system and flooded the census office with bogus forms. There would now be forms for fictitious or multiple addresses and the whole census thing would be shown to be a waste of time and money.

  21. Barrie Shepherd

    Cenus drips

    Posting on line seems to be the way guaranteed to reveal the census information to authorities who, in my view, should have no right to that information. ISP’s, server operators and of course the US “security” authorities who have right of access to any information that passes through servers on US soil or owned/operated by US companies.

  22. Christoph Silver badge

    Data Mining

    "f) is made for the purposes of a criminal investigation or criminal proceedings"

    There's no restriction to say there should be any prior evidence against someone. That means they are not just limited to looking up individual records, they can trawl through the entire database on the off-chance they might find something.

    In fact they can export the whole damn database to the PNC if they feel like it, and then do whatever they like - after all it's the PNC so it's for criminal proceedings.

    1. Christoph Silver badge

      Actually, it's worse

      I just realised I missed something there. That section ends "(whether or not in the United Kingdom),"

      That means that the US Homeland Security can legally grab the entire database from Lockheed Martin. And if anyone thinks they will hesitate for an instant to do so, have you ever considered the advantages of owning a really nice bridge, because I've got one to sell you.

  23. Anonymous Coward

    Legally required to complete?

    What nobody is asking is - are you actually obliged to complete it in the first place?

    My unopened one is ready to topple into the bin as we speak.

    Doormat...where it originally landed.

    1. Dave 3


      Yes, you can face a fine of £1000. That said, they can't fine everyone.

      "Under the 1920 Census Act, citizens can be be cautioned under the Police and Criminal Evidence Act and fined £1,000 for failing to answer questions.

      However the powers have not been properly enforced previously. In 2001 just 38 people were fined for not filling in their forms."

  24. Anonymous Coward
    Big Brother

    Counter-Terrorism Act 2008

    I don't know if Sections 19 to 21 of the Counter-Terrorism Act 2008 are of any relevance, but subsection 19 (6) gives another good example of New Labour's attitude towards privacy and confidentiality, though Section 20 refers to the Data Protection Act 1998 in what appears to be a more reassuring way. I don't know if these Sections have ever been commenced, or how the Data Protection act 1998 interacts with these Sections. (Might the Data Protection Act offer no protection at all?)

    Here's some of Sections 19 and 20:-

    "19 Disclosure and the intelligence services

    (1) A person may disclose information to any of the intelligence services for the purposes of the exercise by that service of any of its functions.

    (2) Information obtained by any of the intelligence services in connection with the exercise of any of its functions may be used by that service in connection with the exercise of any of its other functions.


    (6) A disclosure under this section does not breach—

    (a) any obligation of confidence owed by the person making the disclosure, or

    (b) any other restriction on the disclosure of information (however imposed).

    (7) The provisions of this section are subject to section 20 (savings and other supplementary provisions).

    20 Disclosure and the intelligence services: supplementary provisions


    (2) Nothing in that section authorises a disclosure that—

    (a) contravenes the Data Protection Act 1998 (c. 29), or

    (b) is prohibited by Part 1 of the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act 2000 (c. 23).


    So, in light of that, what does "Your personal information is protected by law. Census information is kept confidential for 100 years" really mean? Does it mean census staff can disclose everything we put on the forms to the Security Service (MI5), Secret Intelligence Service (MI6) and GCHQ?

  25. Chris Evans

    Most people seem to have missed the point as to what is the census for?

    It is so that the governrment has accurate figuers to plan for Schools, Hospitals, pensions etc Most people post much more personal details on public forums/social network sites/ or discuss down the pub with a mate of a mate. Having said that some of the permissable disclosure rules need tightening/made more transparent..

    If you don't fill it in accurately then don't complain about government planning in future!

    Access to genealogists in 100 years is a very useful by-product I've used it to trace my family back to 1785!

    1. Old Handle

      Most people

      Including the government, right? Because if they remembered this they would surely keep it confidential so people didn't have to lie.

    2. Circadian

      @Chris Evans - missed the point

      That may have been what the census was *originally* for. But then all the extra questions started appearing.

      Also, just because *some* people are willing to give up just about all privacy to anyone who asks, does not mean that we all should.

      Also note that the US has full access to the data whenever they feel that it may be useful to them as a US company is handling all the details (further great planning in a time of high UK unemployment - use government money and move it directly offshore to help other countries' economies and employment figures).

      Oh, and "Access to genealogists in 100 years is a very useful by-product I've used it to trace my family back to 1785" - please provide name and location of that ancestor. If ever time travel into the past is achieved, we can make sure that he or she is provided with better information on contraception.

      1. Intractable Potsherd Silver badge
        Thumb Down

        All the data ...

        ... could be anonymous if it is for planning purposes. Names not needed.

        Genealogy is irrelevant to anything except having something to bore you rapidly reducing number of friends.

  26. Mike Westmacott 1

    Which bits of information are confidential?



    Census microdata comprise information on individuals' responses to the UK Census. ONS has made available microdata samples of individual and household records from the 1991 and 2001 Censuses. The samples are anonymised, contain no identifiers and the data treated so as protect respondents' confidentiality. "

    which when combined with the information so freely available from many other sources (including loyalty cards) provides pretty much everything you need to know about a single household.

    I would be interested to know how much money the gov makes from selling this data?

    1. Mike Westmacott 1


      By freely I don't mean freely, but, ermm, for a certain cost. Ahem.

  27. JaitcH

    My UK mail handler has opened the package and ...

    completed it according to my instructions which were not to complete it as it wasn't confidential and since they failed in this respect, I reciprocate. I also stated my time has a pecuniary worth and they were not offering any compensation.

    Do they really care when they ask: How is your health in general? Very good/Good/Fair/Bad/Very bad? Besides since I am not medically qualified I am unable to answer.

    Question 17 was an interesting one. Why was it printed?

    Just another database filler. I guess we shall find out how proficient a U.S. processor is - no one ever bothered me for all the other census I missed.

    Don't forget - use only light blue pencils, make Lockheed work for it's money.

    Interested readers might like to check out: < > as to where the concept was sourced from. Not that it works in that country, either, as I have never completed their census forms no follow up was made.

  28. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    A Curious Lot New Labour

    They were the lot who were so keen on the confidentiality of personal information that they stopped local authorities from selling their electoral register.

    They were also the lot who made sure every bit of your personal information held in the public sector was available to any other bit of the public sector that really wanted it.

    Joined up thinking? They've heard of it.

  29. Yet Another Anonymous coward Silver badge

    Question 17

    It's the "are you a terrorist?" question:

    If yours is blank then they have already decided and you don't have to answer it.

    1. LaeMing

      Terry Wrist

      A bit like tennis elbow but comes from overuse of thick tea-towels.

  30. John Smith 19 Gold badge


    All your data belong to us now.

  31. Oldfogey

    Date for completion?

    There is a major source of error in the data, in that it is suppose to be completed as at 27 March, but I know of a lot of people who have taken the instruction on the front to "Act Now" literally, and have already returned their forms

    More bad data will arise from people like me who will enter inaccurate information for security reasons. For instance I will not state my correct date of birth, because this is so often all banks want as security information.

    They do not need this information for statistical purposes, "age last birthday" would meet their needs perfectly well

    Given the number of people who will fillit in wrongly or not at all, the data is clearly going to be terminally useless; have a look on Google for how they adjust for inacuracy - basically they guess how wrong the data might be!

  32. Anonymous Coward
    Black Helicopters

    Bollocks to the lot of 'em

    My census was filled in online with as much crappy wrong information as i could give them.

    If they come knocking at the door i'll give em more crap incorrect data.

    Fuck em.....

    More important things to do than do their donkey work.

    1. Danny 14


      that could get you in trouble though, much better to supply the correct information on the form. Fill it in in a green permanent marker (the chisel nib type). Good luck getting a computer to read that in. In fact good luck reading it.

  33. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    Heather Brook on Daily Politics

    some very funny comments from the Mail on Sunday correspondent, "If you sent the Government out to buy a loaf of bread, it would come back 6 weeks later with some stale cake and no change!"


  34. kevin biswas
    Thumb Up

    HM Govt in 'bunch of lying bastards' shock.

    Whod'a thunk it, eh ?

  35. Anonymous Coward
    Big Brother


    Some drivers have got away without having to pay speeding fines because they "couldn't remember" who was driving*.

    What if my wife and I can't decide who is "Head of the Household"?

  36. 88mm a.k.a. Minister for Misbehaviour
    Paris Hilton

    Why is there no organised civil disobediance boycott?

    As if wasting half a billion quid weren't enough they go and hire 100 more staff #census

    I once helped my Mum deliver the census forms because I believe in the need to plan for schools, hospitals and that (there was payment involved too). Now reliant on disablity services for my child of course it still matters to me. BUT... there's government online, NHS records, PAYE, DVLA et al. If the information is any use, it's only of use if the dots are joined up and the current census questions really are lame. Why the hell are they spending an estimated half billion for what may very well be the last and most pointless census ever?

    They have designed purple origami buses and done a great job in showing the disconnect in their feathered brains.

    I for one have taken the Libyan rebel approach, burnt my code and placed the rest of the form in the recycling like a good citizen. The £1000 fine? Would hardly be noticed along side my internet shopping habit but a criminal record wouldn't be great in my line of work.

    So if I'm in when they knock on my door (likely as I'm a home worker) we'll just have to see how much of a rebel I really am.

    Paris - 'cause she's got more sense

  37. pete8989

    Hypothetically speaking..

    Suppose for a moment that this execise was actually for the advertised purpose..

    Why make the census a single monolithic survey? Why not let goverment departments plan their own surveys as and when they are deemed necessary?

    Government planning should use research that is based statistically representative data. Why is there any need to attempt to gather a comprehensive data set?

    Occassional voluntary surveys conducted for specific purposes would cost far less, wouldn't necessarily have to be paper based, could be conducted in a more agile fashion (providing more relevant information in a more responsive way), would enormously reduce deliberately innaccurate responses, and would obviate ethical and privacy concerns (at least for the people who opt out).

    Weighting the analysis to account for the statistical bias against non-responders is a problem that is currently dealt with and reasonably well understood.

    Eventually, perhaps public trust could be recovered to the point that more people would respond than not.

    I'd be really interested to hear from anyone involved in the census or any other kind of public survey.

  38. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    If I understand correctly...

    "Census information is kept confidential for 100 years" means neither you nor your descendants can check the data was saved accurately for 100 years.

    Of course if you achieve more than the most junior role in local or national government, the police, security services, inland revenue, credit rating agencies and all their American counterparts then there may be a small speed bump but you should be able to check anyone's record or just trawl if you are willing to make the effort..

    Did I miss anything?

  39. Mr Templedene

    I think I will just leave this here


    To late for some I know, but might help others.

    Fold it up, stuff it in an envelope for A6 and write the freepost address on it.

  40. Anonymous Coward

    Non cooperation with the predators

    I am not some property to inventory, despite the evil strawman trick they play on my parents about a Birth Certificate, so see no reason to cooperate and categorise myself; especially when they behave that dishonourably, in what seems damned like a blatant breach of contract.

    William the Conqueror's sneaky descendants and this derivative of the damned doomsday book can go to hell.

    Statues do not have the force of law, unless you consent, and I don't consent, so that fine is irrelevant.

  41. Anonymous Coward

    Title must etc etc

    Interesting that so many posters here are as concerned about their privacy as I am.

    But I wonder how many of you use Bebo/ Myspace / Twitter / Facebook etc to reveal stuff to the world (widey web) private stuff about your dull little lives that would make a Bishop blush. Who your doing the 'hunka chunka' with how often etc etc.

    Odd that.

    I'll get me coat.

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