Centrelink respects your privacy — except in media releases

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(Privacy information from humanservices.gov.au)

Centrelink's reprehensible breach of public trust, sanctioned by Human Services Minister Alan Tudge. Jennifer Wilson reports.

LAST TIME you were required to divulge private information to a government agency, did you do so in the belief that the agency would keep your information confidential?

Because, if you did, that’s likely the last time you’ll have the luxury of holding that belief.

Nobody who has compulsorily given private data to Centrelink has ever been informed there is a caveat on confidentiality.

Nobody who has ever compulsorily given private data to any government agency in the belief that it is confidential has ever been warned that if they speak publicly about that agency, they have forfeited their right to confidentiality.

Fairfax hack Paul Malone has written a column headlined 'Time for the truth behind Centrelink controversy and Andie Fox'. The piece is a particularly inept and resentful defence of his use of a citizen’s private data, given to him by Minister for Human Services Alan Tudge, to put Centrelink’s 'side of the story' of a dispute between that citizen and the service provider.

The core of his defence is that the Centrelink citizen spoke publicly about her own circumstances, ergo Centrelink has the right to respond by revealing her circumstances, as they know them, to the media.

Malone justifies his tawdry piece thus:

'It should be noted here that Fox chose to publish her personal details in her original 1200-word article ... In fact, Fox revealed her personal relationship status in the article she wrote and submitted for publication.'

In the privacy agreement between Centrelink and Ms Fox, Centrelink undertook to protect the private data Ms Fox was compelled to reveal. Ms Fox at no time agreed, or was asked to agree, to refrain from criticising or otherwise speaking publicly about the agency. Neither was she informed that should she criticise the agency, it would abrogate its undertaking to keep her data private.

These details apparently entirely escape the moral and ethical capacities of Paul Malone, the Canberra Times editors, and Alan Tudge.

I asked some public servants (obviously, I’m not going to name them) how they feel about this turn of events:

'Our jobs rely on the public having faith in our confidential handling of their often sensitive information. Why would they be honest with us if they don’t have confidence that we will keep that safe and secure?'

'A public breach of security or privacy is likely to jeopardise [compliance] causing fear and suspicion, and pushing more people into the non-compliant basket.'

'It ... feels like the integrity of the entire PS has been tarnished [by Tudge’s actions against Fox].'

'We are constantly bombarded with reminders about privacy and dire warnings about the consequences of breaches, and the head of an agency goes and does this.'

'I had to sign a declaration before I was given access. Very serious shit to divulge private information.'

'I’m absolutely horrified at the actual release of the information, the vindictive purpose of the release and also for the Canberra Times publishing it, rather than acknowledging they’d received information that contradicted other claims.'

The Government can't give out your information to journalists ... or can it? (Source: @ABCthedrum)

The relationship between a government agency and a citizen is unique. As I’ve noted before, we are compelled to reveal intensely private information to certain agencies. We do this because we are compelled, and we must trust their staff have been trained in the moral, ethical and legal requirements to respect our privacy.

Minister Alan Tudge’s disgraceful betrayal of that trust damages all AAP agencies and all their staff. It irreparably damages those agencies’ relationships with the public. The Canberra Times, in publishing Malone’s sordid pieces, is colluding with an unprecedented destruction of trust between public servants, politicians and the public.

There is nothing in this hideous saga for the Coalition Government and Fairfax to be proud of — and there is absolutely no defence Paul Malone can invent that justifies the damage he has done to Ms Fox and, in a broader sense, to our society, the fabric of which is held together by the civilising influence of mutual trust.

You can follow Jennifer Wilson on her blog No Place for Sheep or on Twitter @NoPlaceForSheep. This article was republished with permission.

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