UK Census and Data Protection – unanswered questions

The UK census is beginning, and so is the protest movement against it.  Organizations like No2ID, as well as peace organizations are arguing for a boycott of the census for various reasons, including its processing by Lockheed Martin, which also does defense contracting, and the potential of census questions to violate civil liberties.  No2ID has a list of their concerns here.

This boycott movement is a little odd for me, because in Canada academics have been lobbying against the government’s decision to CUT the long-form census.  The Canadian census creates publicly available data which is widely used in social science research (and its perceived as being relatively reliable). It’s seen as the only way of getting unbiased data about some things, like household internet use, or real levels of immigration. Now that the long form has been eliminated, ostensibly because it was intrusive and cost too much money, researchers are scrambling to try and reproduce the data it collected.

So this raises some questions for me about the British census, that I hope someone can shed some light on. I don’t know about how useful the British data is, and I don’t know whether the census here is more or less intrusive. It sounds like it is more intrusive, and it sounds like there is a history linking census with persecution, where I don’t have this association of the Canadian census. Also, does everyone fill in the same census or are there random ‘long forms’ where more information is solicited? It also sounds to me like questions about religion and employment are perceived as being more intrusive than they might be seen elsewhere.

Do you know who holds census data? Do you know how it’s used? Is there baseline data on population demographics that isn’t collected any other way? Is there a way to get this data without breaching privacy? Is this publicly accessible afterwards, or only available under license? And finally – how are we supposed to understand who is living in Britain if we don’t have a census?

I’m not sure if I’ve missed a trick, and the census is really not useful here, or whether there is some cultural understanding of what census (the verb, French recensement) means.  Any thoughts?