Data risk in visa privatisation

Denham Sadler
Senior Reporter

The federal government’s controversial plan to privatise parts of the visa processing system would lead to greater data security risks and could adversely impact the nation’s inflows of skilled migration, the Opposition has said.

Labor this week called on the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission to launch an inquiry into the visa privatisation plan and its potential as an force for anti-competitive behaviour.

A series of Labor MPs also raised concerns in the Parliament about the security of highly personal data that would be stored on the outsourced tech system, along with the impact of automating aspects of the visa application process.

The government opened a tender last December for applications from the private sector to manage future visa applications, with the option to extend this to citizenship applications later. The tender involves the development of a new visa processing system by the winning private sector bidder.

The tender is expected to be awarded in the next two weeks.

Labor has opposed the plan and would have killed it off had it won the May election, but the Coalition is pushing ahead with the plan.

It argues that the new scheme is not a privatisation of any aspects of the actual visa decision-making process, and that new and improved technology would create more time for public servants to work on more complex cases.

But the Opposition says the move amounts to outsourcing one of the core responsibilities of government, and would create a series of data security and privacy risks.

“Outsourcing our visa system will lead to significant job losses, increased visa costs, greater risks of worker exploitation and data security issues, and will make protecting our national security more difficult,” shadow minister assisting for immigration Andrew Giles said in Parliament on Monday.

“They won’t justify this billion-dollar sell-off, because they can’t. But they must bring this privatisation experiment to an end now in the national interest and on behalf of 2000 Australian workers who deserve to keep their jobs.”

Coalition MPs argued that the tender was simply for a “new workflow tool” that would “support digital visa applications and decision-making”.

“We are doing this as we continue to improve and modernise systems and processes that assist in reducing visa decision-making times. The provider of the workflow tool will have no role whatsoever in decision-making,” Liberal MP Julian Simmonds said in Parliament.

“The reform will, in fact, allow the department’s skilled and experienced officers to refocus their efforts on higher value, more complex decision-making that will enhance our border integrity.”

But shadow assistant minister for the Treasury Andrew Leigh said that introducing more automation into the visa application process could risk the system going down the same path as robo-debt, which was currently the subject of a class action lawsuit.

“The government that brought you robo-debt now wants to extend the automation of visa processing. Would you really trust the Morrison government, after the robo-debt scandals, to now engage in a process that will lead to more automation of visa processing? I think not,” Dr Leigh said.

The changes could also lead to delays in visa processing, which could impact efforts by Australian businesses to attract overseas talent, Dr Leigh said.

“There is significant concern among recruiters, who are looking for overseas talent to fill skill shortages, that poorly configured automated systems would make Australia an unappealing destination,” he said.

“Skilled migrants often look at a choice across a range of different countries, and waiting times are already causing a headache.

“Problems that arise through privatisation of the visa system could further damage Australia’s reputation as a great tourist destination and could further damage Australia’s ability to attract skilled migrants.”

Former Immigration department deputy secretary Abul Rizvi has also raised concerns about the privatisation process, saying that the tech risks involved are “extensive”.

“The risks associated with visa privatisation, once Home Affairs has become totally dependent on a monopoly owner of the visa processing IT platform, are extensive. Home Affairs has provided no explanation of how these many risks are to be managed,” Mr Rizvia said in a submission to a senate inquiry into the impact of changes to service deliver models on the administration of government programs.

“It is essential the government ensure it maintains a fallback visa processing IT platform or has a relatively smooth pathway for the government to buy back the IT platform owned by the monopoly provider if, or indeed when, the visa privatisation fails.”

The visa processing IT tech platform was in need of an update, Mr Rizvi said, but the government has not made the case for why this must be done through privatisation.

“The overall risks of going down the privatisation path for visa processing are immense while the benefits appear marginal at very best,” he said.

“Previous attempts at major redevelopment of Australia’s visa processing IT platform have encountered significant delays and cost blowouts due to developers underestimating complexity and the constantly changing nature of immigration policy.”

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