Privacy commissioner Timothy Pilgrim has confirmed agency-specific laws can "override" the Privacy Act and hand some public service bosses the power to disclose personal information.
Pilgrim and his assistant commissioner Andrew Solomon, were busy making calls to the Department of Human Services’ legal officers this morning following revelations that the agency gave details about an individual, Andie Fox, and her welfare debt dispute to Fairfax.
The details were handed over in response to an article criticising Centrelink written by Fox, also published by Fairfax.
It was one of many barbs pushed at Centrelink since late last year over its management of automated debt recovery proceedings using what has been described as a flawed data matching algorithm.
Earlier today, Human Services Minister Alan Tudge insisted the agency was well within its rights to release Fox's personal information.
“In cases where people have gone to the media with statements that are incorrect or misleading … we are able under the Social Services Act to release information about the person for the purposes of correcting a mistake of fact, a misleading perception or impression, or a misleading statement in relation to a welfare recipient. That is what the law allows," he said.
Pilgrim, who appeared before senate estimates today, confirmed there are cases when laws governing the operation of a government organisation can effectively “override” the Privacy Act.
“In the Privacy Act there is a provision that allows for the disclosure of information when it is authorised or required by law,” he said.
“If [a disclosure] falls under those provisions - as in there is something within another agency’s act to allow it - then for want of a different description it would override the Privacy Act in that situation.”
However, Pilgrim also made it clear that his agency would make sure Human Services really did have the authority it has claimed, and confirmed that DHS general and privacy counsel had been “put on notice” that his office would send through a list of written questions within the coming 24 hours.
“One of the issues we look at it whether the release of the information is also proportionate with the issue that is trying to be dealt with at the time,” he said.
While the calls do not amount to any sort of formal investigation, Pilgrim has the power to escalate to that level if he decides the department acted outside its powers, or if his office receives a complaint from a member of the public.
He said he expected a response from the agency within the next fortnight.