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UK census

May 9, 2011

A few dissenters are boycotting the 2011 UK census over privacy concerns, but the Office for National Statistics says the majority of Brits have already returned their completed forms.

Most Brits seem unconcerned about privacy in the censusImage: Fotolia/fuxart

Any Brit still refusing to fill in the 2011 national census faces a fine of more than 1,000 euros - that's the message from the authorities as they deploy staff to chase people up.

Yet there are few dissenter. On the whole, the British have not seemed overwhelmingly concerned about the census and the issue of data protection, a topic that has been more controversial in countries like Germany, which launched its own national census on Monday.

Yet the Brits are, by contrast, deeply opposed to having identity cards forced on them by law.

David Rennie, political editor at the Economist, says the paradox can be explained if you look at Britain's history. He insists the reason the UK is relaxed about round-the-clock street camera surveillance, for instance, is because the country never suffered under dictatorship.

"People are not fussed about being spied on," he said. "I think what the British don't like is ... the idea that once you have an ID card, some official can demand to see it, or some policeman can ask what you are doing.

"If you are walking down the street, as an Englishman, in an English street, there's an idea it's your own business what you are doing. It's not so much about privacy, it's that we don't like being bossed about."

Camilla Shepherd, a working mother of two, says she resisted filling out the UK 2011 census simply because she had so little time. She buckled, however, when she realized she could face a fine of more than 1,000 pounds (1,140 euros/$1,640).

"It came through the letterbox, and I ignored it, because I didn't want to do it - and because I didn't think I had to," she said. "Then, I got a bit scared that I might go to jail, so I sat down at the kitchen table, and I did it. "

the word census
The census has been more controversial in GermanyImage: picture alliance/dpa

Shepherd says since there are so many other ways her personal information can be accessed, the census itself does not worry her.

"I don't think I gave them any more information they wouldn't have got if they had just found out where I worked, so I don't know what the point of it was really."

Others though, are still refusing to fill out the form - and not just because of data security. Some have boycotted the census because the 150-million-pound contract to run it was handed to the American arms company Lockheed Martin.

'Super conspiracy'

One protestor, calling himself 'Superconspiracyguy' is behind an anti-census Internet campaign and he says he's still refusing to fill out the form.

"Lockheed Martin make weapons of war - ships and tanks, bombers - they make weapons to kill people. ... They say [the information is] not for them, they are just the ones who are taking all the information and putting it in a database," he said.

"I don't want them to have my information, it's as simple as that. I want to be a free human being where I get to choose whether I do this or not. That's the bottom line."

Despite the fear that the personal information of millions of UK households could somehow end up in the hands of the US authorities, 'Superconspiracyguy' is still in the minority.

Questionnaires were sent to 26 million households, and more than 90 percent have so far filled in the form. That number keeps going up, according to the Office for National Statistics.

Pragmatic Brits

Rennie says the British are by and large pragmatic about the amount of personal information already out in the public domain.

"People do get a bit grumpy about the government wanting to know so much about them, but if it's for a big supermarket like Tesco, they are very happy [about it]," he says.

"Everyone in Britain has these supermarket loyalty cards, because that way you can save a bit of money ... [and the supermarkets] send you targeted advertisements. The British are very fussed about privacy, until you give them 5 pounds off a packet of margarine."

Since UK census day on March 27, British authorities have been sending out reminders and staff to households that failed to return their forms.

The government insists the information collected is vital to identify future housing and infrastructure needs and public services.

Still, the 2011 census could be Britain's last of its kind - but it is the cost, not data protection concerns, that may kill it.

Author: Nina-Maria Potts, London
Editor: Martin Kuebler