Fairfax broke the news yesterday that the Department of Parliamentary Services had accidentally uploaded a whole bunch of mobile numbers for MPs and senators to the government website devoted to publishing the amount taxpayers are paying for each elected member of parliament and former prime ministers for their phones. Usually the phone numbers are removed entirely, but for some reason the company doing the work, which had been outsourced, simply changed the font colour to white to make it appear blank, until you highlight the text.

The data was apparently up on the site for months until pointed out by Fairfax. In an email sent by Department of Parliamentary Services Chief Information Officer Ian McKenzie to members and senators and seen by Crikey, McKenzie has offered to give MPs and senators new numbers if they are worried about their privacy being breached. McKenzie said that the reports with the phone numbers in it were caches by Google, and still may be accessible even though they have been removed from the APH website. DPS is working with Google to get the cached versions removed.

McKenzie said it would soon update politicians with details of what had been disclosed and how to “block nuisance caller numbers”.

Incidentally, under legislation currently before the Senate — which Crikey has covered before — the mere act of someone at Fairfax highlighting the text to “re-identify” the data from the de-identified forms could be a breach of the legislation.

The definition of re-identification is so vague that even such a simple trick could constitute a breach. Worse still, because the law is retrospective, if it passes in its current form, in theory, the government could prosecute Fairfax for the gall of pointing out their stuff-up, even though Fairfax didn’t publish any of the re-identified numbers. The legislation is due to be debated in the Senate later this week, and Crikey predicts there will be some amendments in light of this incident.

Peter Fray

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