Why privacy is a ‘non-negotiable’ at Services Australia

By Melissa Coade

May 9, 2022

Rebecca Skinner (AAP Image/Mick Tsikas)

The CEO in charge of the agency that manages Medicare and who was responsible for delivering $230 billion worth of payments to Australians-in-need has shared her views on the extra responsibility that comes with digitised government services.

Addressing a virtual event hosted by the Office of the Australian Information Commissioner (OAIC) this month, Rebecca Skinner said the agency had processed more than 476 million claims in the last financial year.

“We’re bigger than all of the banks in Australia combined, with the sort of work and interactions that we do – 452 million customer interactions means that we contact each Australian citizen about once every 20 days on average,” Skinner said.

The CEO of Services Australia noted the agency was working to leverage digital technologies in its citizen support services to get more payments and services to people faster. But with speedier service delivery and digital transformation projects also comes a need to put privacy and data security at the heart of government work, Skinner warned.

“We do really try to work hard to show that we’re acting responsibly with citizens’ data so that we pay the right amount of people at the right time. 

“We’ve [also] got strong authentication method measures to make sure we’re dealing with the right customer, and we’re looking at the right customer record,” she added, underscoring how these measures helped to prevent identity fraud and other related scams. 

Skinner said for the JobSeeker program, which was introduced by the government to help people looking for work, the agency processed 55,000 claims in a single day. 

“[This] was more a feat of human endeavour than it was our technology,” she said, contrasting the bigger volume of claims the agency was able to process in response to the recent support payments for Australians affected by floods about two years later. 

“In the flood crisis we’ve just had, using our digital technologies and customer information that we’ve already had, that enabled us to generate 90,000 claims and payments in one day – so that’s the sort of scale that we’ve been working towards over a 48 month period,” she said.

The OAIC hosted the event to mark Privacy Awareness Week (2-8 May) this month, which also featured Apple’s chief privacy officer, Jane Horvarth, and Consumer Policy Research Centre CEO Erin Turner.

Information and Privacy Commissioner Angelene Falk said the OAIC’s 2020 survey on community attitudes to privacy found trust for how organisations handled personal information had dropped since 2007. She also highlighted the latest findings of the Edelman trust barometer, which showed citizens’ default tendency was to distrust a system or process for collecting and using this information until they saw evidence to the contrary.

“There is work to do together so that the public can trust organisations to protect and handle their personal information responsibly, transparently, accountably, and in ways the community would regard as fair and reasonable,” Falk said.

The commissioner told public servants that a strong privacy foundation started with understanding privacy obligations and community expectations. Australians wanted more control and choice over the use of their personal information and to be better protected from its misuse, she added.

“We also know privacy is growing as a material factor in purchasing decisions alongside the traditional factors of quality, convenience and price. 

“So for organisations and government agencies, putting the individual at the centre of your personal information handling practices when designing new products, services, policies and programs will help the community to trust and engage with you,” Falk said. 

A great deal of work has gone into educating more government agencies about the value of ‘privacy by design’ principles to see that privacy considerations are embedded in public policy and programs from the outset. 

The OAIC also wants to send the message to public agencies that more should be done to update privacy platforms on an ongoing basis.

“This is especially important as our world is rapidly transformed by innovations in technology, with our personal information now a major fuel-source of the digital economy and being used in ways that were beyond our imagination just years ago,” Falk said. 


Making privacy a priority in a new COVID normal: Privacy Awareness Week 2021

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