Welfare Agency Responds To Criticism By Feeding Complainant's Personal Info To Obliging Journalist

Really can’t say enough good things about public servants, especially when their response to criticism is to expose personal details in a published interview.

Andie Fox wrote an article for the Canberra Times about her struggle to get an ex’s debt removed from her record. Following several calls from Centrelink — Australia’s Department of Human Services — attempting to recover this misplaced debt, Fox spent hours — including most of day she took off from work — trying to speak to human being directly about her situation. As is par for the bureaucratic course, this was almost impossible.

I soon found out that to even ask the simplest question about a Centrelink debt requires you to throw yourself into a vortex of humiliating and frustrating bureaucratic procedures.

[…]

Having gone as far as I could on the website, I eventually pressed the Centrelink employee and asked that I please be able to just speak to someone directly. I joined another queue. A different staff member saw me at a counter and, again, I relayed my story. Increasingly, I shed any dignity around discussing the details of my break-up and finances.

Here, you have a three-minute window. You have to speak quickly. You have to speak loudly, so nothing is missed. There is no other way to put this, you sound nuts. You are literally announcing the wreckage of your life to a complete stranger in a room full of other strangers.

This is only a short sampling from Fox’s article. In addition to providing services like welfare, Centrelink goes after people it feels it may have handed out undeserved benefits to. Her problem was eventually resolved — not on site — but after her article’s publication.

Centrelink apparently felt Fox’s case was an aberration. Someone from the agency spoke to Paul Malone of the Sydney Morning Herald to “set the record straight.” Apparently, setting the record straight involves handing over specific details of a person’s relationships/tax payments to a journalist. (And the journalist’s decision to publish these details? Well, that’s on him.)

Included in the rebuttal piece were details Fox hadn’t shared in her article. Like when the relationship had ended and which years the disputed tax assessment covered.

But Centrelink has a different story.

The agency says Ms Fox’s debt is a Family Tax Benefit (FTB) debt for the 2011-12 financial year which arose after she received more FTB than she was entitled to because she under-estimated her family income for that year.

The original debt was raised because she and her ex-partner did not lodge a tax return or confirm their income information for 2011-12.

[…]

Centrelink says it was not until 2015 that she informed them that she had separated from her partner in 2013.

According to Centrelink, it did nothing wrong and violated no privacy laws by handing over this information to a third party — a third party that would make them completely public.

The department confirmed that Fox’s personal information was approved for release to Fairfax Media. It said it was necessary to correct the public record about several inaccurate claims Fox had made.

The information was approved for release by a deputy secretary. The department’s head of legal services and general counsel both said they were comfortable with the release of the information. It was then provided to Fairfax Media by the office of the human services minister, Alan Tudge.

The department claims it has the right to dump personal info if it feels it needs to “correct the record.” That seems incredibly petty, if not possibly illegal. But the wonderful thing about government agencies like Centrelink is that it can simply waive someone else’s privacy protections without breaking the law or consulting any higher authority.

Ordinarily it would be an offence for social services staff to disclose “protected information” held by the agency, which would include a person’s Centrelink details. But the secretary has a broad discretionary power to release information “to such persons and for such purposes” as they deem fit.

The spokeswoman said such disclosures did not need to be formally authorised by the department’s secretary.

So… it’s not really “protected information,” is it? Not if a government agency can instantly strip away the protection without further legal review and for no better reason than contradicting perceived slights delivered by bloggers/journalists.

And it’s not as though citizens can do anything at all to prevent Centrelink from distributing this information at its own discretion, much less compiling a wealth of personal details. Dealing with the government is one of life’s few certainties. No one really gets to “opt out.” And if Centrelink is making any guarantees about protecting personal information in the multitudinous forms it asks citizens to fill out, it’s completely full of shit.

Update: And full of shit Centrelink may be. This just in from The Register:

The Office of the Australian Information Commissioner is investigating whether it’s acceptable for an Australian government department to release personal data when seeking to correct the public record when clients recount their interactions with government agencies.

The office has told The Register it’s “making inquiries with the Department of Human Services” after a Canberra Times article offered a rebuttal to a blogger’s account of her interactions with payments agency Centrelink.

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Author: Tim Cushing

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