The Government Is Storing Sensitive Information About Jobseekers Without Consent

Ensnared in controversy since launch, Workforce Australia continues to be a source of fear and distress for jobseekers around the country.

Over the last fortnight, several jobseekers have tried to contact support staff at the government’s new employment services platform, Workforce Australia, to withdraw their consent to the platform’s collection of their private, sensitive information. 

At the other end of the phone, however, the platform’s support staff have no idea what they are talking about. 

Jeremy Poxon, a JobSeeker recipient and spokesperson for the Australian Unemployed Workers’ Union (AUWU), first tried to withdraw his consent to the collection of his sensitive information by Workforce Australia on July 12, nearly a fortnight after the platform launched. 

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Over the phone, his request was met with confusion. The Workforce Australia support staffer who picked up his call had no idea, Poxon told VICE, how to handle the request, or whether any of their colleagues could carry out the withdrawal at all. 

According to Poxon, and three others who spoke to VICE after making the same request, staff eventually conceded they had no operational capacity to do anything.

In the platform’s privacy notice, “sensitive information” collected and stored by Workforce Australia could include anything from political and religious beliefs, to union affiliations, and even health records. These are data points that have in the past been used to commit identity theft, or manufacture crippling large-scale scams.

Under Australian law, all corporate organisations and government agencies are required to comply with a set of privacy principles, baked into the Privacy Act, which offer protection to the collection of personal or sensitive information. 

According to Moira Paterson, an adjunct professor of law at Monash University who specialises in privacy, one of those principles—called “APP3”—suggests that a government agency “may only collect sensitive information” with the consent of the person who that information relates to. 

Paterson pointed towards guidelines published by the Office of the Australian Information Commissioner, the office tasked with regulating breaches of privacy, which say: “An individual may withdraw their consent at any time, and this should be an easy and accessible process”.

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For Jay Coonan, a JobSeeker recipient and spokesperson for the Antipoverty Centre, the process so far has been anything but easy. 

After making a consent withdrawal request of his own, he eventually received an email from the Department of Employment and Workplace Relations, the government agency responsible for the controversial roll-out of the government’s new Workforce Australia platform. 

The email suggested he self-manage his sensitive information by adjusting limited privacy settings that do not appear to account for many of the data points listed in the platform’s privacy document. 

Coonan told VICE the confusion only vindicates feelings shared by jobseekers around the country, who feel like governments past and present generally harbour boundless contempt for unemployed workers. 

“People are unable to trust the government or departments with their private information,” Coonan said. 

“It is obvious that getting these contracts signed and the money shifted to the private provider industry was way more important [to the federal government] than providing a holistic supportive system,” he said. 

The sentiment was shared by Samantha Floreani, a program lead at Digital Rights Watch Australia, who told VICE that failing to offer users of the platform an easy and accessible route to withdrawing their consent to the collection of sensitive information can have harmful impacts.

“And because the people who are interacting with Workforce Australia are generally often already quite vulnerable, that kind of harm really is quite a significant threat,” Floreani said. 

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“One [recent example] that comes to mind is the National Disability Insurance Scheme (NDIS): one of their contracted service providers recently had a breach which ended up resulting in participants in the NDIS scheme having their details revealed,” she said.

“So it's completely reasonable for people to be very sceptical and concerned about the privacy of the information that they are being compelled to provide in order to participate in this program.”

The privacy complaints made by Workforce Australia participants over the last couple of weeks have added to a laundry list of criticisms which have ensnared the Department of Employment and Workplace Relations in controversy since the beginning of July. 

The government’s new employment platform, Workforce Australia, was launched on July 1 and replaces the outgoing JobActive platform, which was shut down by the new Albanese government without a transition period or consultation from unemployment and welfare groups. 

The platform also dispenses with the mutual obligations requirements that were baked into its predecessor in favour of a more gamified, automated Points Based Activation System (PBAS), requiring those seeking welfare benefits to complete a series of tasks in return for payments.

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After launch, Workforce Australia became the source of widespread fear and distress among welfare recipients across the country, as countless job seekers were left unable to log into the platform while others struggled to use vital location services.

For the department tasked with overseeing its roll-out, the platform’s issues have prompted more missteps than solutions. 

Users continue to report issues with reporting to Centrelink so they can get paid, while others have been forced to travel as far as 60 kilometres to attend job agency appointments to satisfy the platform’s new points-based mutual obligations system. 

In the face of mounting criticism from welfare advocates, the department has broadly denied that critical issues are as pervasive as they have been reported. Instead, a spokesperson for the department told VICE earlier this month that most participants of the platform have had positive user experiences.

The Department of Employment and Workplace Relations told VICE on Friday last week that it takes its privacy obligations seriously and “ensures” it handles sensitive information in accordance with Australian law.

The department went on to note parts of the Privacy Act, which a spokesperson said “permits the department” to collect sensitive information about an individual without their consent “where the collection is required or authorised by or under an Australian law, such as the social security law”.

The complaints haven’t gone unnoticed, though. 

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According to the department, changes to Workforce Australia’s Terms and Conditions will be made soon to make it clearer to users how far their right to privacy extends, along with a purpose-built website that will host content that shows users how to self-manage their sensitive information. 

Staff at the department’s call centres have also been provided with “clear” step-by-step instructions to help participants manage their sensitive information on the platform, a spokesperson for the department said. 

After calling the platform’s support staff on Monday morning, Poxon said, staff clearly still had no process for revoking consent.

Follow John on Twitter.

Read more from VICE Australia and subscribe to our weekly newsletter, This Week Online.

Tagged:

Politics, Australia, privacy, NEW ZEALAND, welfare

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