The Department of Human Services is accused of briefing a journalist about the case of welfare recipient and blogger Andie Fox, who wrote a column for Fairfax Media saying the agency “terrorised” her over an ex-partner’s debt.
Later, the same news outlet published an opinion piece that defended the agency, setting out Ms Fox’s case with personal information provided by Centrelink.
Ms Fox has said some details were incorrect and has lodged a formal complaint with the department.
But the development has concerned law experts and privacy advocates, who say releasing the move could have a “chilling effect”.
Centrelink’s critics have compared Ms Fox’s situation to “doxing”, which refers to when a person’s private or identifying information is published on the internet without consent.
Australian Privacy Foundation chair Kat Lane warned of the consequences of a government agency disclosing someone’s personal information just because they were “having a war in the media”.
“The citizens of Australia should be able to criticise Centrelink, or a bank, or anyone and not expect their very personal information to come out in the media,” Ms Lane said.
“I would argue commercial entities would not do this. So we have a lesser standard of privacy for people dealing with the government than they do dealing with a bank, for example.
“It’s ridiculous that the government might release sensitive personal information about them.
The department said it could disclose the information under two sections of social security law, sections 202 and 162.
Human Services Minister Alan Tudge has also defended the decision, telling Parliament the “information was provided to correct the record”.
Dr Darren O’Donovan, a senior lecturer at La Trobe Law School, questioned whether those laws applied in this case.
He said the move could also “have a chilling effect” on those who want to criticise government agencies.
“The purpose of Section 202 is to allow government decision-makers to release information to each other for practical decisions and applications,” Dr O’Donovan told The New Daily.
“It doesn’t, I don’t think, or it’s very contestable whether it allows it to be released to the public.”
Earlier in the week, Privacy Commissioner Timothy Pilgrim confirmed he has asked the department to explain itself.