Govt data sharing plan creates ‘robodebt’ threat

Joseph Brookes
Senior Reporter

Labor will vote against the government’s “reckless” plan to open up data sharing, saying the privacy risks are too high and the scheme “opens the door to another robodebt-like attack” on the NDIS.

The Coalition has spent the last three years developing a “new path” for sharing citizens’ information between government departments and agencies, researchers, and the private sector.

New legislation would allow a way around the secrecy provisions or other non-disclosure prohibitions which have previously blocked greater public sector data sharing.

The government’s data sharing scheme would introduce a ‘robodebt’ like risk to the NDIS, according to Labor

But the Opposition on Friday confirmed it would not support the controversial Bill, setting up a Senate showdown for the government which will now need crossbench support to pass the legislation.

In December the government introduced the Data Availability and Transparency Act to Parliament which was immediately sent to a Senate inquiry.

The legislation was criticised by privacy and digital rights groups, the medical community, and the information commissioner for a lack of privacy protections and oversight.

A final report from the inquiry was released on Friday, with the government led committee supporting the bill but recommending amendments to improve privacy protections and oversight of the scheme.

But Labor signaled it would vote against the legislation because the privacy risks are too high and the public could not be confident their information would be protected.

“This bill would undermine the existing privacy protections in favour of a poorly regulated system that is widely open for abuse. It amounts to a reckless treatment of public trust,” Labor Senators wrote in their dissenting remarks.

Deputy chair of the Finance and Public Administration Legislation Committee, Labor senator Tim Ayres, said the Opposition’s dissenting report found the data sharing plan would “open the door to new Robodebt-style schemes including the planned changes to the National Disability Insurance Scheme (NDIS)”.

“The report found that such a program ‘would disproportionately hurt the most vulnerable in our society, and potentially deny them access to the government services they need to live with dignity’,” Mr Ayres said.

The federal government is also planning to introduce mandatory “independent assessments” for people already accessing or looking to access the NDIS. Independent assessments would mean government-appointed assessors using data and algorithms in conjunction with short consultations to decide on an NDIS users’ needs and how much funding they receive, rather than their existing specialists.

After widespread backlash to the plan, new Government Services Minister Linda Reynolds has “paused” the roll out of independent assessments but there is no indication they would be scrapped.

Senator Ayres said the government’s data sharing scheme could be used as part of data matching to “attack” participants in the NDIS.

“Scott Morrison and Minister Stuart Robert were the designers of the cruel Robodebt scheme, which used Australian’s private data to target the most vulnerable for debts they didn’t owe,” Mr Ayres said.

“Robodebt was illegal and demonstrates that this Prime Minister can’t be trusted with sweeping powers and access to Australians’ private data.”

The Finance and Public Administration Legislation Committee report on the Bill did not recommend scrapping the legislation but called for amendments or further clarification to the explanatory memorandum “to provide additional guidance regarding privacy protections”.

The committee also recommended assurances are provided to Parliament that security agencies will provide ongoing oversight of the scheme’s security risks, and the findings of a separate inquiry into the national security risks of  Australia’s higher education sector.

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