Vic privacy chief slams drug tests

Denham Sadler
Senior Reporter

The Victorian Privacy Commissioner has slammed the federal government’s plan to “randomly” drug test new welfare recipients, as the scheme faces a tough path through Parliament.

Victorian Commissioner for Privacy and Data Protection David Watts said the trial project, which would drug test 5000 welfare recipients from next year, raises a series of ethical and privacy concerns.

Announced as part of the federal budget, the CSIRO business unit Data61 will work with government to develop a “data-driven profiling tool” to identify three areas to conduct the drug testing.

David Watts: Deeply concerned about the lack of transparency in data programs

The algorithm will be fed data-sets from the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare, internal data on compliance from the Department of Human Services and the Department of Social Services and from waste water analysis, among others.

“We’ll put all of that together and identify a broad group of people and then randomly select inside that broad group, inside each of the three trial groups,” Minister for Social Services Christian Porter said.

Mr Watts raised concerns over the government’s lack of transparency over the new scheme and its use of data profiling.

“I have a concern that we’re moving blindly into all of these new territories without anyone really knowing what they’re doing, with lots of vendors of algorithms and data solutions selling a lot of gear,” Mr Watts told

“What sort of data protection impact has been done by this department to ensure that the risk of harm coming to people who are targeted in this ‘gesture of love’ by Malcolm Turnbull? How can we tell that it’s being done accurately?”

The reliance on data-led algorithms to determine the areas to conduct drug testing risks vulnerable groups being unfairly targeted and inevitable discrimination, Mr Watts said.

“People assume that data is data and that if you’re using it, it’s in reasonably good shape. From my experience as a regulator, that’s not the case. A lot of data sets are inaccurate, incomplete and highly questionable,” he said.

“Some data sets are good, some data sets are poor, and some data sets are badly maintained. And no-one knows what’s being used.

“I wonder if these welfare recipients who are being drug tested can find the data that’s being used about them to create adverse outcomes for them.”

There has been little information revealed so far about how this data-driven profiling will be applied, and this lack of transparency was a concern, Mr Watts said.

“Everyone talks about big data, but we need time to take it apart a bit and try to isolate what the risks are and what harms it can cause.

“We don’t know what these algorithms do, we don’t know what the state of the data is that’s going into them – how do we know they’ve got the right stuff?” he said.

“There are a lot of questions to ask, and there’s a way of taking these issues apart in a much more sophisticated way than we have been. There are other sides to the debate, other ways of analysing all of this stuff that I scarcely see discussion of in Australia.”

To conduct the welfare drug testing from the start of next year, the government will need the support from Labor or the crossbench in order to pass the necessary legislation. Following a party meeting yesterday, the Opposition has reserved its decision on the matter, pending consultation with experts in the welfare sector.

“There is a complete lack of detail on what the Turnbull Government is proposing. They need to come clean about how this trial would actually work,” Shadow Minister for Families and Human Services Jenny Macklin told Buzzfeed News.

The Opposition also submitted a number of questions to Mr Porter, focusing on the impact of drug testing on welfare recipients and funding for rehabilitation.

Labor has previously raised concerns that the use of data profiling in the scheme will result in another debacle similar to Centrelink’s robo-debt program, which is currently facing a series of inquires.

“When these algorithms fail or there is inadequate human oversight, as we saw with robo-debt, the consequences are disastrous. It is hard to believe the same mistakes won’t be repeated here without some institutional change. There hasn’t been any indication from the Minister that process will be improve – that is deeply concerning,” Shadow Minister for Human Services Linda Burney told

“These kinds of projects affect the capacity of people to live. I want to see some evidence from the government that any systems that have properly tested in a way that robo-debt clearly was not.”

Privacy issues surrounding the new scheme have also been raised by UTS Business School associate professor Bronwen Dalton.

“This will inevitably descend into profiling, and probably racial profiling. Data profiling reproduces and magnifies our own human biases, with all that computational power. People think data profiling is blind and rational, but what it actually does is amplify our own biases in the way we work with data,” Ms Dalton told

“It’s a violation of privacy that falls disproportionately on young people, and very poor young people. They’re just singling out young people who are getting hardly any money anyway.”

If it does successfully pass through Parliament, the drug testing scheme will be subject to the government’s new privacy code, which it is currently developing after a push by Australian Privacy Commissioner Timothy Pilgrim.

Mr Pilgrim said there is an “urgent need” for the code following a series of high-profile embarrassments for the government centring on big data and privacy issues, including last year’s census and the ongoing robo-debt program.

“I believe that if this is not done, there is a risk that the community may lose trust in the ability of government to deliver on key projects which involve the use of personal information,” Mr Pilgrim said.

The Commissioner will also soon be launching an inquiry into privacy issues surrounding the robo-debt program.

The need for the code also comes with the government’s increasing focus on utilising public data and making this open to the public. But this push comes with a range of privacy issues that need to be addressed, Mr Watts said.

“There are a lot of great initiatives, like how the DTA is moving forward and doubling its staff and that MyGov is going to be the best thing we’ve seen in our lives. But we need a slightly more sophisticated debate about some of the privacy issues that underpin this and the effects it might have on people,” he said.

“People are saying that data is the new oil, and that’s a very unfortunate analogy. Oil caused global warming and a whole range of things. We need to take a step back and think about the implications.”

Do you know more? Contact James Riley via Email.

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