(Image: AAP/Tracey Nearmy)

Last week, Twitter user, “Claire” (who Crikey plans to keep otherwise anonymous) threw up yet another sign of Centrelink’s intrusion into recipients’ lives: a demand for 10 months’ worth of financial transactions from both her and her partner.

Claire told us that she has not been given a clear reason for the request other than a reference to overpayments made in 2016, which she and her partner have since reimbursed. “My current (perhaps paranoid) educated guess,” Claire says, “is that, given that the timing of this new requirement coincides with the government’s announcement that they want to roll out the [cashless welfare] card nationally, I and other ‘naughty’ welfare recipients are being reviewed in preparation for income management.”

While Centrelink’s more common request for bank statements offers some justification for determining needs and assets, demanding specific information on how recipients spend their money is a shocking level of intrusion. Crikey investigates what Centrelink can learn about your spending habits.

Can Centrelink ask what you’re spending your money on?

First up, the Social Security Act empowers Centrelink to collect a massive amount of data from recipients, ranging from the basic (name, location, family information) to the financial (tax information, bank statements) to the deeply personal (voiceprints, browsing history on myGov, chats with virtual assistants).

They can either obtain that information directly — via paper forms, online portals, search warrants and the like — or through third parties such as government agencies, banks, employers, and social media.

For example, Human Services launched an investigation into healthcare fraud in July that cross-matched Medicare usage over the past five years with Centrelink data. A more sinister intrusion saw Centrelink ask people applying for exemption from the cashless debit card to provide details on their children’s school attendance.

More often than not, Centrelink requests for payslips or bank statements don’t necessarily include transaction histories. Advocacy group Not My Debt advises robo-debt recipients that when Centrelink calls for payslips, they do not need to give Centrelink their entire transaction history, and “advise against it”.

However, Claire’s notice specifically calls for transaction histories. The notice references two 2016 lump sums she and her partner received which were overpaid and subsequently reimbursed, and cites a relevant legal obligation in the Social Security Act

According to the Office of the Australian Information Commissioner (OAIC), recipients need to comply with any written notice from Centrelink which outlines a demand for information, a legal need for this information, and the relevant law. Victorian Legal Aid (VLA) also notes that broad collection powers mean that all Centrelink needs is a suspicion to “require your bank or your employer to give details of your financial transactions, or any other personal details that are relevant to your Centrelink entitlements”.

Hank Jongen, general manager of the Department of Human Services tells Crikey that Centrelink has the power to demand transaction histories as part of a claim process or a manually triggered review. They have had this power since the establishment of the act.

“We only ask for this supporting information if it is relevant in determining a person’s eligibility or payment rate,” Jongen says. “As one example, transaction history may be important to assess the ongoing impact of a lump sum on a person’s rate of payment or to determine whether a waiting period is appropriate.

“If someone does not respond to a request for information about their income and assets, their payment may be suspended or cancelled.”

What if you refuse to comply?

However, there is a legal argument that Centrelink cannot punish people for providing all relevant information — payslips, other lump sums, balance data — while blotting out personal information (which Not My Debt advises).

Joel Townsend, program manager of Victoria Legal Aid’s Economic and Social Rights program, says that while failure to respond to a Centrelink notice may mean that a payment will be suspended, there are a number of preconditions that the request must adhere to.

“So, arguably, a failure to respond to a request for all payments made out of a bank account would not [automatically] lead to non-payability of a benefit,” Townsend tells Crikey.

Then there’s the question of robo-debt’s legitimacy. The recently revealed class action against robo-debt and a separate case being pursued by VLA both aim to test whether human services can punish recipients for not providing evidence of a debt Centrelink cannot prove. That is, whether recipients can be treated as guilty until proven innocent.

Centrelink notes that that all information is retained in accordance with the Privacy Act but, separately, that it can share data with other government departments or agencies. While recipients cannot refuse to give information on the grounds that it might incriminate them, the act states that information given in response to a notice “cannot be used in criminal proceedings” unless it relates to four offences: refusing to comply with a notice, providing misleading information, forgery, or for Centrelink-related fraud.

Given the frankly embarrassing number of Centrelink data breaches over the years, recipients are more likely to be worried about their privacy being leaked than having criminal charges brought against them. Claire, at any rate, intends to hold out.

Has Centrelink gone too far invading people’s privacy? Write to [email protected] with your thoughts and full name.

Peter Fray

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