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Wednesday, 08 May 2019 05:14

DHS cares little for the privacy of Australians

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DHS cares little for the privacy of Australians Image by Gerd Altmann from Pixabay

Ever since the Department of Human Services started its robo-debt campaign to get back money which it has allegedly overpaid to welfare recipients, it has often been accused of having scant regard for the privacy of people. On Monday, I had a first-hand demonstration of exactly how much the DHS cares for privacy.

NOTE: The Department of Human Services has responded to this article vigorously refuting the author's contentions of a personal privacy breach and the response is appended to the end of the story.

That day, iTWire ran a story which was based on reactions from the Australian Greens spokesperson on family and community services, Senator Rachel Siewert, and Electronic Frontiers Australia chair Lyndsey Jackson, both of whom criticised the robo-debt program.

Their criticisms came in the wake of the DHS suddenly wiping a $4000 debt, allegedly owed by Melbourne nurse Madeleine Masterton, that was at the heart of a Federal Court challenge to the recovery scheme.

For anyone who has been living under a rock, the robo-debt scheme was started by the Coalition Government shortly before Christmas 2016, when the DHS sent tens of thousands of letters to people, telling them that their earnings were at variance with what they had declared to the Australian Taxation Office.

There was only background material in Monday's article as far as the DHS was concerned, so the department was not contacted for any input. Each and every individual or organisation which figures in this writer's stories is contacted for comment if needed.

There are many cases where individuals or organisations write to iTWire after a story is published, requesting that a comment from them be added to the story. This writer is always happy to oblige – even though it is often easier to get blood out of a stone when the boot is on the other foot, especially with government agencies.

On Monday afternoon, I had a call from the DHS. It was cagey as usual, no phone number registered on my mobile and the person gave a single name to identify themselves. Briefly put, the message conveyed was that the DHS wanted some comments included in the story and had sent them to me by email. I have communicated with the DHS many times in the past and thus they have both my official email address and my mobile number.

When I had a look at my email that evening, there was nothing from the DHS. Next morning (Tuesday) when I was checking my personal email account — one which I use only for my own private mail — I noticed an email from the DHS. It gave a list of things the department wanted added to the story. It had been sent to both my official email address and my personal email address, but had never come through on the official account.

Now, I have never given this private email address to the DHS. Doubtless, it is possible to find out personal contact details for anyone on the Internet – but should a government agency, especially one with "Human Services" in its name, stoop so low?

It shows that all the claims made about DHS and Centrelink are totally believable – claims about how the department has scant regard for people's privacy or their rights.

One thing is sure: no email sent in this manner is ever going to achieve the purpose which the sender had in mind.

Only one thing will result: the person involved will be called out. So, "Sarah" from the media section of the Australian Government Department of Human Services with the 1800 phone number – you have wasted your time. Learn some official etiquette before you deal with journalists again.

The Department of Human Services has responded with the following email repudiating the above story:

The true story is as follows:

  • We reviewed an unbalanced story by Mr Varghese on Monday. He didn’t seek comment from us so we contacted him requesting balancing quotes as we normally would.
     
  • We called Mr Varghese and sent an email based on the last address we used to correspond with him ([email protected]). This email bounced back.

  • We then consulted Medianet, an Australian Associated Press subscription service which contains a media contacts directory.

  • This directory listed two email addresses for Mr Varghese – the one which bounced back and an alternative (email withheld). There was no indication this was private email address.

  • We resent our email to both of these addresses and the former bounced back again.

  • Mr Varghese didn’t raise any concerns with us. The first we heard of this theory was when reading his story this morning.

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Sam Varghese

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Sam Varghese has been writing for iTWire since 2006, a year after the site came into existence. For nearly a decade thereafter, he wrote mostly about free and open source software, based on his own use of this genre of software. Since May 2016, he has been writing across many areas of technology. He has been a journalist for nearly 40 years in India (Indian Express and Deccan Herald), the UAE (Khaleej Times) and Australia (Daily Commercial News (now defunct) and The Age). His personal blog is titled Irregular Expression.

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