The disgrace of the mandatory census

In 2011, Audrey Tobias refused to provide Statistics Canada with a filled out copy of her census form, as mandated by law. Her decision, and her decision to stand by that decision, led to a trial in which the 89-year-old faced jail time. Although Tobias stated that her act was protest against the use of US military contractor Lockheed Martin to process the forms, and not against the mandatory nature of the census itself, this was really a trial of the government’s power to compel citizens to provide it with private information. As Tobias’ lawyer, Peter Rosenthal, argued, compelling Tobias to fill out the form on threat of jail was a violation of the Canadian Charter of Rights, and its provisions for freedom of conscience and expression.

The judge in the case, Ramez Khawly, rejected Rosenthal’s argument, but found a way to find Tobias not guilty anyway on the basis of his doubt about her intent in not filling out the form. Perhaps sensing the outrage that might ensue over punishing an octogenarian for a non-violent act of civil disobedience, Khawly was nevertheless too fearful, or obtuse, to uphold an argument that would set a highly inconvenient precedent from the standpoint of the state. The judge both justified and exposed his particular mix of cowardice and compassion by asking, “Could they [the Crown] not have found a more palatable profile to prosecute as a test case?”

I suppose I shouldn’t be surprised by the judge’s politically expedient decision. What shocks me is the reaction of many regular citizens, and in particular of some fellow statisticians. Let me be as clear as possible about this: support for the mandatory census is a moral abomination and a professional disgrace. It should go without saying that informed consent is a baseline, a bare minimum for morality when conducting experiments with human subjects. Forcing citizens to divulge information they would otherwise wish to keep private, on pain of throwing them in a locked cage, does not qualify as informed consent!

There is no point here in arguing that what’s being requested is a minor inconvenience, or an inconsequential imposition. Informed consent doesn’t mean “what we think you should consent to.” More than anything else, statistics is about understanding the inherent uncertainties in measurement, prediction, and extrapolation. Just because you might not object to answering certain questions, gives no reason to assume the universality of your preferences. Finally, note that to at least a small group of revolutionaries, the right not to divulge certain information to authorities was so important that it was written right into the Bill of Rights.

Besides the argument that the census in minimally invasive, I’ve also heard it argued that the value of obtaining complete data outweighs concerns of privacy and choice. To this I say that our desire, as statisticians, for complete and reliable data, isn’t some ethical trump card, nor is it the scientific version of a religious indulgence that purifies our transgressions.

Dealing with incomplete and imprecise data isn’t some unique problem that can be overcome at the point of a gun, it’s the very heart and soul of statistics! In the real world, there is no such thing as indisputably complete or infinity precise data. That’s why we have confidence intervals, likelihood estimates, rules for data cleaning, and a wide variety of sampling procedures. In fact, these sampling procedures, if properly chosen and well executed, can be more accurate than a census.

I call on all those who work for StatsCan or other organizations to refuse to participate in any non-consensual surveys, to stand up for their own good name and the good name of the profession, and to focus their energies on finding creative, scientifically sound, non-coercive ways to obtain high quality data.


  1. Jail time does seem excessive for refusing to fill out a census form. I think we have it about right in the US: a $100 fine. This is enough that people without a strong preference either way will just fill it out, but not so high that it harms anyone much.

    There are higher penalties for falsifying information, which seems about right given the incentive there could be by political parties to inflate or deflate population counts.

  2. Before commenting on the most important issue, the Charter Right to Privacy of Personal Information,

    RE “there are higher penalties for falsifying information” (U.S.):

    in Canada people who supply false information have not been targetted for prosecution. Most likely because of the thousands that fall into this category. In one census the number of people whose religion is “Jedi warrior” was high. Another example: in resistance to the involvement of Lockheed Martin Corporation in the data base on citizens at Statistics Canada, there are a large number of Canadians whose name is that of a cartoon character, and so on. Creative resistance!

    I would add a correction, the Canadian LONG FORM census is not actually “mandatory” any longer. Which requires a bit of explanation: the census (once every 5 years) is now a “short form”. The “long form” and growing longer, is now called the “National Household Survey”. Data collecion on individuals is now done through “Surveys”. Surveys are on-going, all year, every year.

    Under the Statistics Act, surveys are voluntary. However, StatsCan workers TELL Canadians that they must supply the information (80 + questions) – – “It is THE LAW.” (which it is not). Many people continue to be threatened with a fine AND jail time, if they do not comply.

    I highly recommend that people read “IBM and the Holocaust” by Edwin Black, in order to understand the signigicance of detailed files on citizens – – the template exists – – Nazi Europe.

    IBM made huge profits serving the Nazi need for information on citizens. IBM’s role was cleverly hidden through subsidiary companies, the ownership of which was very hard to unravel. It was only figured out 60 years after-the-fact because of New York Times journalist Edwin Black’s curiosity about the “Hollerith machine” he saw at a Holocaust Museum.

    Perhaps it could only have been unravelled in this century because it required a whole lot of electronically connected people on 2 or 3 continents to piece together the puzzle.

    IBM is a sub-contractor for the contracts that Lockheed Martin Corporation (one of whose specialities is “surveillance”) has with the Census Bureau in the U.S., in Canada, and in the U.K.. (There may be more countries whose files on individual citizens have been wormed into by the LM/IBM duo, I only know of these three.)

    The more informed that citizens are, the better. There is a large file of information on my blog – I was prosecuted for refusal to comply with the 2006 census. Many people have worked to collect the information. See