Services Australia pays $1.2 million for spyware technology

Services Australia has paid more than $1.2 million to controversial cybersecurity firm Cellebrite for technology to aid its “investigations into fraud and other criminal behaviour”, The Guardian is reporting.

Services Australia, administrators of Centrelink and Medicare, has bought phone data-extracting technology – usually used by law enforcement agencies – from the Israeli tech security group. It has yet to say which of its services the software will be targeting, only that it will be used to investigate fraud.

Cellebrite technology has traditionally been used by police across the globe to extract information from phones they have confiscated, but Services Australia is using the sophisticated fraud-detecting technology to investigate its own clients.

A Services Australia spokesperson told The Guardian that the agency has for many years conducted its own criminal investigations against the programs it administers.

“These investigations may result in a referral to the Commonwealth Director of Public Prosecutions (CDPP). The agency also leverages close relationships with law enforcement agencies to identify and address criminal activity where necessary and appropriate to do so,” the spokesperson says.

Services Australia has not clarified which programs, such as Jobseeker, Medicare or the Disability Support Pension, for which it uses the technology.

Read: How your superannuation affects the Age Pension

In the past, police agencies around the world have been accused of breaching privacy laws by using Cellebrite software and, in 2017, it was reported that the software was being used by a number of Australian law enforcement agencies.

Services Australia signed a $460,000 contract with the firm in 2020 and extended the contract in August by $740,000.

Cellebrite describes itself as “the world’s leading digital intelligence platform” and, although the company’s technology has been linked to privacy breaches, the majority of its products are designed to extract data from unlocked devices.

The company says it makes it easier for investigators to sift through the data held on a phone that is part of their investigations.

Read: Can Centrelink check your bank records?

Greens spokesperson for family, ageing and community services Janet Rice said Services Australia’s use of the technology would be queried in Senate estimates later this month.

She told The Guardian: “We need clear answers and accountability from the minister and the agency about what this contract will be used for and why.

“This tender raises serious questions for Services Australia, about why it needs this software, what it will be used for, and whether it can guarantee not to violate people’s human rights, including the right to privacy.

“After the pain and suffering caused by robo-debt, it’s horrifying to see Services Australia spend more than a million dollars on what appears to be more surveillance of people receiving income support.”

Services Australia’s debt recovery practices came under fire recently after a report that Centrelink was chasing a decades-old debt from a 72-year old woman who had passed away.

The woman’s daughter discovered the bill while sorting through her mother’s mail. She informed Centrelink of her passing and the agency said it would reassess the debt.

She then received a notice confirming that her mother’s estate still owed the debt. Services Australia confirmed that the letters were sent in error.

In August, federal MP Tony Burke revealed in parliament the plight of 102-year-old Annie Hawkins from western Sydney, who had received notices from Centrelink threatening the withdrawal of her Age Pension if she did not provide identity documents in person. At the time, Sydney was under strict lockdown conditions due to the pandemic.

“We’ve been locked down since the last week of June,” Ms Hawkins’ son Frank told NCA Newswire.

Read: Government assistance failing older Australians

“This letter arrived on the 30th of July. It arrived during lockdown. It is pretty unreasonable that Centrelink should be asking people to show up to a service centre in the middle of a lockdown.”

Do you think Centrelink should be using this technology? Do we need stronger privacy laws to stop this? Let us know in the comments section below.

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Written by Brad Lockyer



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