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Centrelink's debt data-matching failed government's privacy guidelines, campaigners say

19 April 2017
Christopher Knaus

Privacy campaigners say Centrelink’s use of data-matching to detect potential welfare debts has failed to meet the government’s own privacy guidelines.

The Senate inquiry into the “robo debt” debacle continued on Wednesday, hearing from privacy advocates and New South Wales-based welfare advocacy groups.

The Australian Privacy Foundation used its evidence to raise a series of concerns about the way Centrelink is now using automated data-matching.


Centrelink has for many years automatically matched its data with that held by the Australian Taxation Office to detect discrepancies in reported income.

Typically, such data-matching programs are required to comply with onerous requirements under the federal privacy and data-matching acts.

But, because Centrelink is no longer using tax file numbers to match data with the ATO, it only has to follow a less onerous voluntary set of guidelines, issued by the office of the Australian information commissioner.

Those guidelines require the government to publicly release a protocol for how the data-matching will work and what information will be used.

They also require the government to provide proper notice to the public of its data-matching activity and give individuals a chance to respond.

The Australian Privacy Foundation chairwoman, Kat Lane, said there was no evidence that Centrelink had complied with obligations of those guidelines.


“To get to a situation where you have voluntary guidelines issued by a regulator that the government simply chooses to ignore is extremely disturbing.”

The evidence came after the Nick Xenophon Team senator Skye Kakoschke-Moore wrote to the information commissioner, Timothy Pilgrim, to voice her concerns about the same apparent privacy breaches.

Pilgrim is still considering whether to launch an investigation into the privacy implications of the robo debt system.

Kakoschke-Moore said the evidence made it clear an overhaul of Australia’s privacy laws was needed.


The ombudsman’s office said there was a lack of consultation with the digital transformation agency, welfare groups, and other government departments. He said the department should have been “better prepared” to help people work out whether they had a debt or not when rolling out the system.

The inquiry heard that, following ombudsman’s advice, the government was now reassessing cases in which a 10% debt recovery fee had been imposed. Welfare rights groups have previously expressed concern that the fee was being imposed indiscriminately and potentially unlawfully.

The inquiry also heard that, from July, Centrelink will begin using the system to consider other income sources, including dividends from shares or rental income.