“We don’t comment on particular cases”. Few lines are more ubiquitous in the public sphere. It is no surprise therefore, that the controversy regarding the disclosure of an individual’s personal information by the Department of Human Services has touched off enormous media comment and criticism.
The Government's privacy watchdog wants answers from bureaucrats who provided a Centrelink client's personal details to a journalist in a bid to counter her public criticisms.
Public servants have also told ABC News they are concerned the disclosure could inadvertently breach the privacy undertakings of other departments who share their data with Department of Human Services (DHS).
Activists accuse the Department of Human Services of releasing private personal information about a woman in an effort to silence her criticism of its much-maligned debt recovery drive, but the department maintains it has done nothing wrong and the privacy commissioner is looking into the case.
There has been a lot of public discussion about Centrelink’s automated system of data matching and resultant debt collection. It may come as a surprise however that Centrelink is not required to comply with normal debt collection rules.
Before January 1, Centrelink debts expired if the agency ignored them for six years. Now it can pursue them at any time like the Tax Office, but within the agency there is confusion about the implications, writes Stephen Easton, journalist with The Mandarin.
As the Centrelink debacle continues and the government resolutely refuses to pause the tide of debt notices – many of which describe debts that are not legitimate – it's understandable that people would be looking for blood. According to the Australian Lawyers Alliance, those issued with inaccurate debts may be able to sue Centrelink.
Centrelink’s recent debt recovery woes perfectly illustrate the human side of data modelling. The Department for Human Services issued 169,000 debt notices after automating its processes for matching welfare recipients’ reported income with their tax. Around one in five people are estimated not to owe any money. Over Christmas, stories abounded of people receiving erroneous debt notices up to thousands of dollars that caused real anguish.
Coincidentally, as this all unfolded over the break, one of the books on my reading pile was Weapons of Math Destruction by Cathy O’Neil. She is a mathematician turned quantitative analyst turned data scientist who writes about the bad data models increasingly being used to make decisions that affect our lives.
Before January 1, Centrelink debts expired if the agency ignored them for six years. Now it can pursue them at any time like the Tax Office, but within the agency there is confusion about the implications.
There’s apparently a view in the agency that now there is nothing stopping the automated compliance program from going back through tax and welfare records “indefinitely” to find new debts to raise.
The current attacks upon past and present pension payment recipients by Centrelink and the Minister for Social Services are “wrong at so many legal levels that it’s hard to know where to begin,”, ALHR President Benedict Coyne said.
In 2017 we will be finalising an ongoing assessment of the privacy aspects of DHS’s Enhanced Welfare Payment Integrity — non-employment income data-matching program, as well as conducting further assessments into their data-matching activities. The results of these assessments will be made available to the public at their conclusion.
No investigation has been opened in relation to this matter by my office.