Is Centrelink ‘hacking’ recipients’ accounts to investigate welfare fraud?

Updated: Services Australia is under scrutiny for its use of telecommunications metadata and password-bypassing software to investigate welfare recipients suspected of falsely claiming single payments while in a relationship.

The revelation raises questions about privacy and government overreach, including whether Centrelink should be allowed access to private data, bank accounts and social media accounts.

Documents obtained by iTnews through a freedom of information request reveal that Centrelink uses metadata to detect “people who receive payments as a single person while in a marriage-like relationship”. Israeli vendor Cellebrite also supplies password-bypassing technology to help Centrelink investigate suspected fraudulent claims.

The use of metadata and password-cracking technology has ignited concerns of privacy violations, especially when data is extracted from devices before charges are laid or when no criminal prosecution takes place.

In one case, a NSW mother says she was pursued for $80,000 in alleged overpayments after data was taken from her, her daughter’s, and her ex-partner’s devices, despite never being charged with welfare fraud.

“We don’t use telecommunications metadata or Cellebrite when conducting standard ‘member of a couple’ reviews,” a Centrelink spokesperson told YourLifeChoices.

“Telecommunications metadata is only used to support potential criminal cases. It is not used in our compliance activities, which aim to prevent avoidable debt as a result of customers being overpaid due to changes of their circumstances.

“The key metadata we request enables us to identify records linked to telephone numbers or IP addresses to support criminal investigations.”

However, the spokesperson did not clarify whether this includes geolocation data or sender-recipient records of communications.

Centrelink hasn’t been able to directly request metadata from telcos since late 2015. However, it can still access the information through the Australian Federal Police (AFP). As of now, it is unclear how many investigations involve fraud claims based on relationship status.

While Centrelink has authority to access bank accounts under certain circumstances, it does not have the power to spot check an individual’s bank accounts.

Services Australia general manager Hank Jongen confirmed that this was the case.

“Services Australia does not have access to customers’ bank accounts in real time,” Mr Jongen told YourLifeChoices.

The agency can request bank account information to verify income and asset details for social security payments. However, Centrelink does not routinely check bank accounts. It also cannot access specific bank transactions without consent or a court order.

Centrelink can also see your reported income and may request payslips, bank statements or other evidence to support this information. The agency may also cross-reference data with the Australian Taxation Office (ATO) to verify income.

As for social media, there is no explicit evidence of Centrelink monitoring social media. Although some suspect it may be not outside the realm of possibility. There have been reports in the past of the government accessing social media to root out fraud. Metadata used in investigations could potentially include information from social media platforms. This has not been confirmed by Services Australia or any other outlet.

When Centrelink investigates individuals suspected of fraud, the process may involve gathering information about the person’s circumstances. This includes verifying details and potentially conducting interviews with the recipient or other parties. False claims can lead to penalties such as repayment of the overpaid amount to potential criminal charges, including fines and imprisonment.

The Australian Unemployed Workers’ Union (AUWU) has described the use of metadata to determine relationship status as “government overreach”.

“… of most concern is that the government is using this metadata to enforce the wildly unfair and discriminatory partner income test,” says AUWU vice-president Jez Heywood.

“This absurd, punitive requirement removes peoples’ independence, which in the case of victims of domestic violence, actually endangers lives. Once again, a system that is supposed to help does exactly the opposite.”

Centrelink explained to YourLifeChoices that “Cellebrite technology is only used to support the interrogation of ICT devices seized in accordance with Commonwealth Search Warrants issued in relation to an offence against a Commonwealth Law”.

“Warrants are issued in accordance with the Crimes Act 1914, and are executed by the Australian Federal Police,” they added.

“We conduct our fraud investigations in accordance with Commonwealth law, with briefs of evidence prepared for consideration by the Commonwealth Director of Public Prosecutions where there is sufficient evidence of an offence.”

The ongoing debate over privacy and questions of the moral/ethical extent of government surveillance is sure to continue should more instances of metadata and password hacking come to light.

Are you aware of the extent of Centrelink’s investigative powers and the potential consequences of making false claims? Do you think this is fair? What is off-the table when investigating welfare fraud? Why not share your opinions with our members?

This article was updated at 5.19pm on 6 April 2023 with comment from Centrelink regarding the specific use of metadata and Cellebrite technology. Article originally published as ‘Centrelink accused of hacking recipients’ accounts to investigate false claims’.

Also read: How not to fall foul of this Centrelink rule


  1. Centrelink needs to get “its act together” – and get the “BASICS” right before they start becoming “Big Brother!”

    We live on the road, and are able to claim ‘rent assistance’ as our caravan is our home. It took four years for us to find that we were completing the WRONG FORM to claim rent assistance, as it is a “Rent Declaration” Form we have to complete. We now train many Centrelink staff, as they have no idea how to complete the form or what the questions actually mean.

    Receiving “claimed rent assistance” is just as bad!! Centrelink are usually 2 – 4 fortnight cycles behind, and their payments have no “cross reference” to compare what dates they are paying for – NOR when and how much they are paying you.

    We tell them – in black and white – when we start paying rent, where, and how much – even telling them when we WILL STOP PAYING RENT – but their SYSTEM has no idea how to manage that information! After making a complaint to the Federal Minister, I received a phone call from the person who designs the Forms.

    He had NO IDEA what the process is after we complete the forms.

    The left hand has no idea what the Right Hand does!!! TYPICAL CENTRELINK!!!

    So when you finally receive a ‘rent assistance payment’ – there is NO cross reference to what, when or where they are refunding your rent assistance.

    BUT – they are very quick to demand “back pay” – when they think that they have overpaid you! WE – their customer – have records of dates, length of stay, how much we paid, and when we stopped paying rent, BUT Centrelink CANNOT PROVIDE a detailed report of what payments, for what site, for what dates, or why they paid that refund, OR even how they worked out the payment amount!!

    It is up to US – the private individual – to challenge them – for which we have no idea WHY, WHEN or WHERE they claimed that we were overpaid!! Meanwhile you have a “repayment demand” hanging over your record and your head!!

    Hank Yongen is a load of hot air – and should be sacked!!

  2. I attended an appointment with Centrelink regarding my ex-wife’s Age Pension to understand how they arrived at the differing payments, as they don’t itemise or explain. The verbal ‘explanation’ was opaque to say the least. I then said they must get a multitude of queries? She said “No, most people just accept that the payment is correct.” The mind boggles!

  3. If you want to take money from the public purse you should be preprepared for the “public” to be sure that you are entitled to it! Centrelink should NOT just accept what they are told, they should be even MORE attentive to the veracity of claims!

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