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Census threatens spies' cover

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The first casualty of next month’s 2011 census could be the secret identities of Britain’s top spies – not to mention the location of senior police officers, judges and intelligence eavesdroppers as well.

This follows a release from the Official of National Statistics (ONS) last week, reminding all UK employees that they will need to provide their workplace postcode, and encouraging employers to make sure that this information is readily available.

In a fairly upbeat explanation of this process, Dr Adam Marshall, Director of Policy at the British Chambers of Commerce, said: "Businesses need this information to be able to make the right investment decisions. Census statistics can affect plans for business expansion and new industry, so it is worth making sure staff know their postcodes before completing these surveys."

However, as a spokeswoman for the ONS made clear to us yesterday: "Taking part in the census is very important and is also compulsory. People could face a fine of up to £1,000 if they don't participate, persistently refuse to fill out the questionnaire or supply false information."

So where’s the problem? According to Spy Blog, a regular blogger on intelligence matters, "Census 2011 Personal Information data is only Protectively Marked to almost the lowest category i.e. Restricted". However, individuals in a range of sensitive occupations and positions - not just those above, but also tax inspectors, prison officers and women hiding from abusive partners - would ordinarily expect their personal information to be marked as "Secret" or even "Top Secret".

The key difference is that the lower level classification talks only about release of such information causing distress or disruption to ongoing operations: the higher levels deal with outcomes that may be life-threatening or disruptive to public order.

We asked the ONS if individuals would be allowed to opt out of questions where they believed they might be a risk to their personal safety. Apparently not. A spokeswoman told us: "All questions are mandatory except the religion question which is voluntary. People's personal information is protected by law and census information is kept confidential for 100 years."

So no exceptions? "As in previous censuses, we have worked with the armed forces and other occupations to agree advice they will give their staff on how to fill in their census."

Filling out the census in all its glory is mandatory, then, and failure to do so may render individuals subject to a fine of £1,000. Nonetheless, the Census Office is happy to discuss this matter with those affected: there is, we suspect, more to come on this story.

Meanwhile, those who wish to prepare themselves for the questions to come later this year can hop to the ONS site, which contains a full set of questions (pdf). In fact, giving away employer postcodes may be the least of our spies’ worries – as we’d imagine that questions 37 (the main activity of your employer) and 38 (the name of the organisation you work for) could also be something of a giveaway. ®

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