Activists accuse the Department of Human Services of releasing private personal information about a woman in an effort to silence her criticism of its much-maligned debt recovery drive, but the department maintains it has done nothing wrong and the privacy commissioner is looking into the case.
Blogger Andie Fox first wrote about some aspects of her welfare debt recovery experience for The Canberra Times earlier this month, where she turned her flowing prose to vividly describing how she felt “terrorised” by Centrelink after trying to explain how a debt resulted from her ex-husband failing to file his tax return after the breakdown of a marriage.
Fox has taken issue with the department discussing details of her case with Paul Malone, who was also writing for the Times. Centrelink told Malone it had cancelled a portion of Fox’s debt that was “due to her partner’s non-lodgement” after she informed the agency that the marriage was over, but this deceptively simple statement belies an “arduous” 12-month process, she writes:
“You would think a combination of my taking a day off work to visit Centrelink and following that, spending hours on the phone with Centrelink, would be evidence of a desire to both understand the debts and to resolve them. That I remain, to this day, confused about elements of both is a sign not of my disengagement but of a very complicated, demoralising and problem-ridden process.”
She also suggests domestic violence was a factor in her case and points out Centrelink had the wrong contact details for a period, in response to assertions — via Malone — about when and how many times Centrelink had tried to contact her, when she had responded, and when she provided the information about her change in circumstances.
Fox sees Malone’s article as an invasion of her privacy and serious criticism of DHS has emerged from the online #notmydebt campaign, which has taken up her cause.
The agency has issued a standardised response to media enquiries about the matter, asserting that what it did was completely legal and that it would do it again:
Personal information obtained about a welfare recipient may be used by the department for social security law or family assistance law purposes (refer to Section 202 of the Social Security (Administration) Act 1999 and Section 162 of the A New Tax System (Family Assistance) Administration Act 1999).
This allows the department to correct the record in cases where a person makes a public statement or complaint about the department’s handling of their welfare payments that does not accord with our records, including via the media.
As such disclosures are made for the purposes of the social security law or the family assistance law, they do not need to be formally authorised by the Secretary.
Unfounded allegations unnecessarily undermine confidence and takes staff effort away from dealing with other claims. We will continue to correct the record on such occasions.
The DHS website’s page about “your right to privacy” does not include such explicit advice. It only contains generic statements about the department having unspecified “obligations” under the Privacy Act, and being bound by some kind of “strict confidentiality and secrecy provisions” that somehow limit how personal information can be used, and to whom it can be disclosed:
Your personal information will not be disclosed to any other person, body or agency unless:
- you give us permission
- it is authorised or required by law
- it meets one of the other exceptions in the Australian Privacy Principles
Privacy commissioner Timothy Pilgrim told The Mandarin this morning he was aware of the media reports about DHS briefing Malone and said his office was “making inquiries” with the department, but the rest of his response was again a proforma affair:
Government agencies are entrusted with a significant amount of personal information. This information must be handled in accordance with the Australian Privacy Principles.
An agency may only disclose an individual’s personal information in a limited range of circumstances. If anyone has any concerns about how their personal information has been managed they can contact my office for assistance on 1300 363 992 or visit www.oaic.gov.au.
Government agencies regularly use personal privacy as a reason not to disclose information to the media, and decisions on what to release often appear to be based on the potential for positive or negative interpretation. In this case, given the backlash, it’s hard to see whether the effort to “correct the record” was worth it, on balance.
The controversy has led to accusations that Centrelink executives are behaving like Mafia dons, making an example of Fox and trying to intimidate other people who might be thinking of criticising them. Fox describes it as “a disturbing experience” and the question for a lot of people watching the argument unfold is not whether it was legal for Centrelink to release a client’s personal details in response to a critical op-ed, but whether it was ethical.
Public service executives wouldn’t view their own actions in such a threatening light, of course. The relevant people in this case may have felt Fox had to accept a lowered expectation of privacy, given she had already shared some of her own personal details publicly. They surely carefully considered what specific details to give Malone and based on what was published, they seem like fairly minor additions to her own story.
Most clearly highlighted by the case however is a series of disconnections: between public perceptions about privacy and the reality of the legal framework; between the way government agencies explain that legal framework to the public, and the way they interpret it in practice. Clearly, to mandarins and members of the public, the Privacy Act means very different things.