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Centrelink admits trawling social media for complaints

2 March 2017
Asha McLean
ZD Net

Senior bureaucrats responsible for Centrelink told Senate Estimates on Thursday that staff at the department sift through print, broadcast, and social media for individual complaints, and decide whether to report grievances to Tudge's office based on the circumstances of each case.

"There would be a number of complaints that would be made, particularly on social media, which would be unidentifiable and indeed may be of a relatively minor nature," Human Services staffer Jonathon Hutson told the Senate. "If there was a substantial article in a newspaper or indeed a substantial article on broadcast media -- that would be a lot more important in terms of how we would deal with it."

The comments come as the Centrelink bosses were grilled about the agency's controversial automated debt recovery system that has seen some letters demanding money repayment sent in error to welfare recipients, as well as the agency's recent admission of sharing private client information with the media.

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According to Guardian Australia, Tudge's office also accidentally sent the journalist two internal briefing documents, marked "for official use only", which had been prepared by the department.

It is reported that the documents contained additional information on Fox and her personal circumstances, which went beyond the dot points prepared by the department. They included further detail of her relationship history, including when she separated from her partner.

No mention of the documents was made during Estimates on Thursday, however.

On Tuesday, Tudge insisted that the government is allowed to release a person's private information under social services laws in order to correct the record.

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Also on Tuesday, Australian Information and Privacy Commissioner Timothy Pilgrim requested that DHS consider the sensitivity of the information it holds, and said he would be looking into the release of personal information from within the department, but stressed that he was not opening a formal investigation at this stage.

Pilgrim did say, however, that there are particular circumstances where laws that govern the operation of a government organisation are able to override those present in the Privacy Act.

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Greens senator Rachel Siewert argued there were "errors and omissions" in the information released that undermined integrity in the system.

"If you're going to release something, at least do it properly," she told the Centrelink heads.

In February, the Senate passed a motion to initiate an inquiry into the "robo-debt" system that will be chaired by Siewert.

DHS announced in December it had implemented the online compliance system in July and said it was finding approximately AU$4.5 million that had gone awry each day. With this, the federal government hopes to improve the nation's Budget by AU$2.1 billion over the next four years.