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Release of Centrelink recipient's data legally 'debatable', say welfare advocates

28 February 2017
Christopher Knaus and Paul Farrell
The Guardian

Releasing an individual’s Centrelink information to counter their public criticism is legally a “very debatable” move, welfare advocates have said after the public disclosure of welfare recipient Andie Fox’s personal history.

The government has come under fire for releasing Fox’s personal information to Fairfax Media, which used it to counter her public criticism of Centrelink

The Department of Human Services said it was legally permitted to release such information to correct the public record under social security law but the National Social Security Rights Network questioned the legality of the disclosures.

Ordinarily, a certificate would be required from the secretary of the department to authorise the release of personal information. But the agency has argued it did not need to take this step.

The network’s executive officer, Matthew Butt, said the law only allowed the government to release personal information in “very limited circumstances” and generally only to assist it in administering an individual’s entitlements accurately.

“It is very debatable, in our view, whether this authorisation extends further to using information publicly in the way that occurred yesterday, divorced from this function,” Butt said. “Irrespective of the legal position, we do not think this is appropriate nor does it pass the test of what someone would reasonably expect when they disclose personal information to Centrelink.”

Butt said there was some misinformation in the debate about the government’s automated debt recovery system. However, he said releasing personal information was not the way to deal with that problem. 

“Public debate about the ‘robodebt’ issue is really important and it must include the stories of individuals affected by it,” he said. “Those stories may at times contain inaccuracies but this is normally because they are describing the system as they experienced it. Hearing about individual experiences is the vital to this debate.”

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Greens senator, Rachel Siewert, said she would use a Senate estimates hearing on Thursday to ask questions about the disclosure of Fox’s personal information. 

Siewert said it was an extremely concerning decision that had “huge implications” for privacy of those on welfare. 

“The effort the government has put into ‘correcting the record’ for media should go to correcting thousands of incorrect debts,” Siewert said. 

“It says a lot that the Department would rather attack the messenger than address the serious issues raised,” she said.