back to article We have never given census data to anyone – not even the spy agencies, says the UK's Office for National Statistics

The UK's Office for National Statistics (ONS) has strongly denied it hands census data over to police and law enforcement agencies – and claims it has "never" handed personal information to the security services. In a Freedom of Information Act response published on its website, the ONS came out fighting when a member of the …

  1. Mike 137 Silver badge

    Heart warming optimism

    "Hopefully by 2031 bright minds will have come up with a better way of doing things"

    Judging by progress in government systems development so far, the online components of the next census will be completely secure - because they won't function at all.

    1. Potemkine! Silver badge

      Re: Heart warming optimism

      because they won't function at all.

      That's a real air gap.

  2. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    All data the government or their agencies collect should be regarded as shared with other departments or agencies. It's nice to believe it's in a secure place but it's not. MI5 will have access to whatever they want and once one agency has that access there is an internal argument for other agencies having access. Forget FOI requests and official statements, all data is shared to a lesser or greater degree. You only need to look at the abuse of RIPA to see this.

  3. Doctor Syntax Silver badge

    "Anyone could request a new code for any address in the UK and then input whatever data they liked."

    Familiarity with the historic census returns(from the usual genealogical suspects shows that although most answers are credible there were some who either did give whatever answers they liked or misunderstood questions.

    One example I came across recently - the head of household said she was a beershop keeper and her almost* stepdaughter said she was an innkeeper's servant. Were the premises a beershop, a beerhouse or an inn?

    * There seems to have been a lack of a marriage.

    1. wolfetone Silver badge

      "Were the premises a beershop, a beerhouse or an inn?"

      Or their spouse was an alcoholic?

      1. Doctor Syntax Silver badge

        No spouse. The landlady had previously been cohabiting with the step-daughter's father on a nearby farm. He'd died so she seems to have taken the youngest of his legitimate daughters under her wing along with a few children ho had her own surname and who seem to have kept appearing whilst she was living with him. The census returns were under the premises old (pre-licence) name but it was sometimes styled as an inn although only licensed under the Beer Act.

        It's amazing what you can turn up from a few census returns and tithe maps. It didn't initially appear to have been even tangentially related to the query originally being answered although it was and the whole turned into an article of > 12 pages.

  4. Dan 55 Silver badge
    Black Helicopters

    The UKSA [Statistic Authority], the ONS and the National Statistician will never volunteer to disclose personal information for any non-statistical purpose.

    So the other government agencies just take it then?

    1. Alumoi Silver badge

      No, they just ask for it or just say they want it for statistical purpose.

      As per your quote, UKSA won't volunteer to disclose the info for non-statistical purporse. But they won't say no if asked for it.

      1. Woodnag

        Meaning of words

        If another party, perhaps located in Cheltenham, has access to the records database then "UKSA won't volunteer to disclose the info" is correct under all data snaffling circs.

        The statement that matters needs to say "No party outside ONS has access to the census data" and then enumerate exactly what products are generated fom the data.

        Remember that the US census was supposed to be secret too, but was used to identify Japanese-Americans in WW2.

        The question I'd like to tack on would be "If we find out that you lied, what would happen to you?".

    2. Christoph

      For the last census the data was sent to the USA for processing. So the NSA have a complete copy of the raw data.

      I have, obviously, no evidence for this. But given their known record it would be ludicrous to suppose that they did not grab that data.

  5. Dave 15 Silver badge

    Never 'given'...

    Well, they are politicians so this means the square root of fuck all. No, they never GAVE it to someone, they may have sold it, told someone where it was so they could take it or let an American company process the census data knowing full well that under American law that means the NSA gets full unrestricted access.

    So, in short its a totally and utterly meaningless statement from a bunch of rectums who think none of us has ebver heard of Snowdon.

  6. gnasher729 Silver badge

    From a discussion I read on a non-UK census: Politician says: "If you have nothing to hide, you have nothing to fear". Other person: "I thought the idea with a census was that _if_ you have something to hide, you have nothing to fear".

    It should be obvious to everyone, even a politician, that having correct information about the population is very valuable. And we can only get correct information about everyone if it is guaranteed that this correct information, which might hurt someone, is guaranteed to not ever get into the wrong hands.

    I would make a strong suggestion that MI5 for example should put some request for information to the Office for National Statistics, that the office refuses it, and then gets all newspapers to print the story. Together with all the background given here.

    1. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      MI5 don't go through the front door, ringing the door bell and politely asking may they come in. They make representation to the relevant minister, or the PM, they then get the access they need, without it being made common knowledge, even within the government.

      If they pretended they did then it would just raise alarm bells that a massive cover was being drawn over access to the data.

      You raise a good point, but with the current government's attitude to immigrants they will never gain a full view of the current population. The government needs to respect people not just the data in order to earn their trust which will encourage everybody to be honest.

      1. heyrick Silver badge

        "They make representation to the relevant minister"

        Really? You mean they didn't open the door of the car of the head of ONS, sit in the passenger seat, and say "we know where your children go to school...I expect a USB stick in my hand, same time, tomorrow" before quietly leaving and disappearing into the scenery.

        All this asking permission, it's so time consuming and involves too many people.

    2. Ken Moorhouse Silver badge

      Re: if you have something to hide, you have nothing to fear

      Ditto Covid jabs.

      There was talk of an amnesty where some such people would be able to get their jabs "with no questions asked". The idea there is that regardless of immigration status, it would be for the benefit of all citizens to have as many of their neighbours vaccinated as possible.

      After an initial headline, in the Daily Mail, I think, this has gone very quiet. If this is still current policy, one would think the gov would be flood-advertising the fact, because how else do you reach such people?

      1. d3vy

        Re: if you have something to hide, you have nothing to fear

        "After an initial headline, in the Daily Mail"

        I think the last part of that sentence might explain why its not happened.. The DM is hardly the best source for truthful information and "Illegal immigrants are stealing vaccines from OUR pensioners" is exactly the kind of clickbait shite they publish to get their readership numbers up.

        That said, it sounds like quite a sensible idea to me, so I'm kind of torn, I cant imagine that the DM came up with an actual good idea on its own :)

        1. Ken Moorhouse Silver badge

          Re: "Illegal immigrants are stealing vaccines from OUR pensioners"

          The article was remarkably restrained and even-handed. The same cannot be said of the ensuing comments.

  7. You aint sin me, roit

    As a Jedi* I'm in two minds about this

    In the 2001 census there were 14 Sith Lords running around in Scotland. We need to know who they are!

    * Like my father before me.

  8. Jon 37

    > the agency said it had "never passed information onto the security services." Such an unambiguous response is exceedingly rare

    It's actually not as clear as you think. The law, section 39(4)(f), says "an Intelligence Service", the reply says "the security services". So is there an "Intelligence Service" that they don't consider to be "the security services"?

    They also didn't answer about whether they have ever passed on data under section 39(4)(f), which would allow them to pass all the data to the police "for the purposes of a criminal investigation". The police could then have forwarded the data to the security services. That way, they could still claim they "never passed information onto the security services" because they didn't, they passed data to a middleman.

    There is a long history, especially in the US, of intelligence agencies making very careful denials that are literally true but very misleading. OK, this is the UK, but I'm still sceptical.

    A better set of FOI questions might be:

    Please list every disclosure you have made under Statistics and Registration Service Act 2007 part 39(1)(a). If any disclosure is exempt from disclosure under FOI, please state so. If no disclosures have been made under this section, please state so.

    ... then repeat that for (b), (c), ... (i).

    1. Dave314159ggggdffsdds Silver badge

      No, it's clear and unambiguous and you're reaching. The whole notion is silly. MI5 doesn't need to access census data, they know all those details already.

    2. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      A decade ago

      I read the disclaimers on the 1st page and considered that since the thing was being administered by Lockheed Martin who, besides being major members of the US Military Industrial Complex notably manufacturing Stealth aircraft, made the SR-71, which the CIA operated from Lockheed's own airfield.

      So I wrote 'BULLSHIT' in big letters across the 1st page and sent it back.

      Never heard any more about it. This time readdressed it to the CIA, Langley, Va.

    3. JassMan Silver badge

      They may not voluntarily give any information to the Intelligence services but they have probably given it all freely to Google. There was no option to opt out of analytics yet I believe all pages were running scripts supplied by Who knows how much actual data Google hoovered up (accidentally of course.)

      1. Falmari Silver badge

        I saw the option to opt out and when selected all were disabled (except necessary) including Google Analytics.

        1. EvilDrSmith

          I doubt Google got much from me, I sent back the hard copy form by post.

          And no, I didn't use the code to go online and request the form.

          I got the letter - only, it was addressed to a house two doors down (so I did the Postman's job and delivered it to the correct address).

          Never received the original letter to my address (presumably it went somewhere).

          Got visited by Census ONS lady, got given form. Completed and returned by post.

          At which point, I would gloat about the superior security of old-style hard copies only in protecting personal data.

          Apart from the fact that I've now had three further visits from the ONS people saying they have no record of me completing the census, the last one being ~2 weeks after I returned the form.

          Still, if Royal Mail can lose both the inbound letter and my return, that's a form of security, right?

      2. Cynic_999

        They say they " will never volunteer to disclose personal information." But what if they were *asked* to give the information? In that case it would not have been "volunteered".

    4. Kabukiwookie Silver badge

      They have never 'given' any data. Someone from MI5 came in and ran his own reports.

      1. Tom 7 Silver badge

        I'm not sure 'Select Everything from everywhere ' counts as a report.

  9. Pascal Monett Silver badge

    Ah, so it's an offence

    "It is an offence to fraudulently request and use an online access code for a household that is not your own "

    And that's supposed to deal with the issue ? Newflash : it's an offence to enter someone else's private property and make off with the money, jewelry and/or electronics. Happens every day, though.

    Here's a tip : make your website procedures secure, then argue about what an offence is.

    1. Dave314159ggggdffsdds Silver badge

      Re: Ah, so it's an offence

      "And that's supposed to deal with the issue ?"

      Yes, criminal penalties have a deterrent effect, particularly on such senseless vandalism. This is hardly a situation where we care greatly about 100% accuracy.

      1. Anonymous Coward
        Anonymous Coward

        Re: Ah, so it's an offence

        I'm not sure about it being much of a deterrent. If I look at figures from the government concerning "theft offences" for 2012/2013 (latest I could find) I see that only about 17% of recorded offences end up with a prosecution or other police action. Out of those it seems less than 20% end up with a successful prosecution.

        Given that reported figures are less than actual figures and given that not a lot has changed in the last few years I think we can probably say: "If you burgal a house there's a one in ten chance you'll be caught and if you're caught there's a one in ten chance you'll be successfully prosecuted.".

        Doesn't sound like much of a deterrent to me.

        By and large I think people tend to obey the law more due to feeling that it's the right thing to do than because they fear punishment.... although that might change if the punishments were extreme enough but then I'm not sure I'd want to live in that sort of society...

        1. John H Woods

          Re: Ah, so it's an offence

          "although that might change if the punishments were extreme enough"

          The evidence, both historical and current, is that it doesn't. People were still stealing when the penalty was death or transportation and a quick look around the world shows that the countries with the harshest justice systems don't have the least crime - if anything, rather the opposite.

          1. Andre Carneiro

            Re: Ah, so it's an offence

            My understanding is that the severity of the sentence is not a deterrent, but the consistency of being caught/prosecuted is.

            If you know you're likely to get caught you're less likely to offend. If you know you're unlikely to get caught, you'll take your chances.

          2. Dave314159ggggdffsdds Silver badge

            Re: Ah, so it's an offence

            Actually it seems, sensibly enough really, to be what statisticians would call 'expectation': multiply the chance of getting caught by the penalty.

            Bear in mind that for most people, the penalty here would be the criminal record they'd get - quite embarrassing to the middle classes.

            Really, faking someone else's census return seems utterly pointless, so it doesn't have a big reward for committing the crime, or a huge penalty if you get caught.

        2. Dave314159ggggdffsdds Silver badge

          Re: Ah, so it's an offence

          It's unquestionable they have a deterrent effect. How big that effect is depends on factors like how likely you are to be caught, and what the penalty is if you are.

          Burglaries are actually quite a good example: sensible career scrotes don't burgle houses because it's a much stiffer penalty than other equally lucrative crimes - it's much more invasive than card fraud, e.g.

  10. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    claims it has "never" handed personal information

    I have heard so many times half and quarter truths, misspeakings and straight-face denials, not to mention obvious lies, from numerous gov agencies (from top down, i.e. starting with Boris and his pals, but this goes waaay back to Blair and his lies about WMD, etc.), that I have NO TRUST LEFT in any assurances, genuine or false. I do not, by default, assume they lie, but I don't trust them either. Trust and verify? Well, they have abused my trust numerous times and verification is not available.

    1. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      Re: claims it has "never" handed personal information

      Very this. But how do you square that with the surveillance state and destruction of freedoms because of last year's flu outbreak?

      The mass hypnosis and controls put in place are justified by the data.... Wanna trust that?

      Seen in this light the whole palava becomes a terrifying Kafkaesque nightmare.

  11. AnAnonymousCanuck

    Sounds like The DBA Knows What She is Doing

    Access to the summarized data will be a standard SOX/ISO process. Everyone: government, businesses, individuals will have access to this

    Access to the dataset with the individual records will be ISO/SOX and then re-requested, re-authorized, AUTHORIZED BY A SENIOR someone, re-documented, re-executed, re-logged, multiple times. These people are bureaucrats, secure behinds are the primary requirement.

    Other than the security services and criminals, I don't see any other group that would even try for the detailed dataset. And, like many others, I am sure the security services already have a copy of it.


    Just An Anonymous Canuck

  12. Cederic Silver badge

    We didn't pass data to them

    They connected to our systems and took it by themselves.

    Convince me otherwise :)

  13. cantankerous swineherd

    "to the extent permitted under the law" - ye olde get out clause allowing govt to do what it wants.

    anyone answering the where were you born question with anything other than "within the sound of bow bells" was chancing it.

  14. Norman Nescio Silver badge

    Covert Human Intelligence Sources (Criminal Conduct) Act 2021

    The ONS can say what it likes, and the staff may well believe what they say, but the security and intelligence services may well decide that the information should be taken (not volunteered) for their own purposes.

    The Covert Human Intelligence Sources (Criminal Conduct) Act 2021 potentially gives the security and intelligence services broad cover to commit illegal acts:

    (a)in the interests of national security;

    (b)for the purpose of preventing or detecting crime or of preventing disorder; or

    (c)in the interests of the economic well-being of the United Kingdom.


    And, it is not just the security and intelligence services - the list of agencies that can apply for Criminal Conduct Authorisation are:

    Any police force

    The National Crime Agency

    The Serious Fraud Office

    Any of the intelligence services

    Any of Her Majesty's Forces

    Her Majesty's Revenue and Customs

    The Department of Health and Social Care

    The Home Office

    The Ministry of Justice

    The Competition and Markets Authority

    The Environment Agency

    The Financial Conduct Authority

    The Food Standards Agency

    The Gambling Commission

    In theory, this is all about running covert human sources in organisations under investigation, such that the source cannot be found simply by their refusal to commit a criminal act; however should the security and intelligence services decide that it is necessary and proportionate to run a covert source within the ONS, then providing a clandestine copy of (selected) data could well be covered by a CCA.

    It would be interesting to be told how many CCAs per year (or month) are issued by the above organisations, and what their durations are.


  15. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    Census, Facebook, Google, Palantir, Amazon, Ancestry.........

    ....and so on. Then there's the hoovering up of phone records, credit agency records, mortgage details, births, marriages....and on and on.


    All these have been either a) handed over to private "data aggregators" or b) just hacked by bad actors.


    Does the phrase "big data" and the word "correlation" ring any bells?


    And this correlation effort probably gets little or no boost from adding the census.


    What am I missing?

  16. Snowy Silver badge


    The same department when my mum wanted a paper copy managed to send four copies that arrived at the same time. This I think was due to the automated system saying the code entered was wrong three time (you can only try 3 times before it stops you) and the fourth one by talking to someone.

  17. This post has been deleted by its author

  18. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    spy speak, you need to read between the lines.

    > The UKSA [Statistic Authority], the ONS and the National Statistician will never >>volunteer<< to disclose personal information for any non-statistical purpose.

    Why not say "will never disclose personal information", by adding "volunteer", it totally changes the legal meaning. It adds a lot of wiggle room.

    > If disclosure is sought, such as through a court order, the UKSA and the National Statistician will always refuse to allow it, and will contest the case to the maximum extent possible >>under the law<<, using each stage of appeal in the Courts if necessary, in order to ensure statistical confidentiality; and will do so in an open, public and transparent manner, to the extent permitted >>under the law<<.

    If there were some secret court orders from secret courts (similar to the US FISA courts) with the authority to legally compel disclosure, with no legal right of appeal, then they would have no option but to obey and comply with law. I feel sure that an organisation such as GCHQ or MI6 would have access to such a private court, whose records will never be made public.

  19. Felonmarmer

    "The UKSA and the National Statistician will always refuse to allow it, and will contest the case to the maximum extent possible under the law, using each stage of appeal in the Courts if necessary, in order to ensure statistical confidentiality; and will do so in an open, public and transparent manner, to the extent permitted under the law."

    So those two "extent permitted under the law" clauses, means that the government can do it and hide the fact that they are doing it using appropriate legislation.

  20. jmch Silver badge

    give and take

    "We have never given census data to anyone – not even the spy agencies"

    So they just take it themselves, then?

  21. Dinanziame Silver badge

    As useful as the EU-US privacy shield

    We don't provide it — unless they ask us. We don't allow it — unless the courts say we must. We are transparent — unless the law says otherwise.

  22. Dabooka

    Key word; volunteer

    Right so they always flatly refuse and fight through the courts.

    How can we find a list of cases heard by the courts? I appreciate they'll be redacted to hell but at least that would indicate they are fought.

  23. mutt13y

    Not volunteered the data to MI5 LOL

    MI6 probably has every other countries census data so its pretty absurd to believe MI5 wont have the UK data.

    Getting access to restricted data is kind of their entire operation.

    1. Vulture@C64

      Re: Not volunteered the data to MI5 LOL

      It is what they are supposed to be good at :)

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