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Australian privacy commissioner flags new data mining rules for government agencies

Centrelink's buggy “Robodebt” program to get another audit

By Richard Chirgwin, 18 May 2017

Australia's Department of Human Services (DHS) might have given itself a clean bill of health over its notorious “Robodebt” data-matching program, but Privacy Commissioner Timothy Pilgrim wants to check it out for himself.

Speaking to a Senate inquiry into the program today, Pilgrim said the inquiry will take place after the start of the 2017-2018 financial year (a delay which perhaps reflects extremely tight resourcing at the Office of the Australian Information Commissioner operates under).

The DHS decided last year to start raising debts against individuals it though received excessive Centrelink payments. To that end, it matched its records against those of the Australian Tax Office (ATO) - but did so without first consulting the taxman.

Since Centrelink keeps fortnightly records of benefit payments and income reported by recipients, while the ATO only records annual income, the predictable outcome was a debt recovery program riddled with errors.

Rather than fix the system in the face of criticism, the DHS and various government ministers (Minister for Human Service Alan Tudge and Minister for Social Services Christian Porter) repeatedly defended it.

The DHS faced even more criticism when it “doxxed” one of its critics, a woman named Andie Fox, for publishing a blog post giving an account of her dealings with Centrelink.

Pilgrim's first action will be to audit how the DHS used ATO's data, and he wants to make all federal government agencies conduct and publish privacy impact assessments before undertaking data mining projects.

He told the senate his office is considering whether to investigate the Andie Fox case, something which he expects will take weeks.

Australia's Commonwealth Ombudsman has already offered up a sharp rebuke over the Robodebt program. ®

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