​Austrac looks to extend Human Services data-matching project to law enforcement

Despite 'robo-debt' plaguing the Department of Human Services for the majority of 2017, Austrac is looking to extend the data-matching project to Australian law-enforcement entities.

The Australian government is looking to expand a data-matching project conducted by the Australian Transaction Reports and Analysis Centre (Austrac) and the Department of Human Services (DHS), with the Joint Committee on Law Enforcement hearing on Friday that the project saw welfare data being matched with financial data to find instances of welfare fraud.

Facing the joint committee looking into the impact of new and emerging information and communications technology on Australian law-enforcement agencies was Austrac data scientist Dr Tania Churchill, who said the data-matching project between her agency and DHS was a "hugely effective" exercise.

"We recently did a big data-matching project with the Department of Human Services, and that showed the effectiveness of using specialist expertise from both agencies and the power of matching in this instance our financial data with welfare data, and using that to find welfare fraud, that was a hugely effective exercise," she told the committee.

"At the moment, we're looking at expanding the matching algorithm that we developed that we can start to match data with other agencies, for instance [the Department of] Home Affairs, we've also talked to AFP, those kind of areas because each of the agencies here [the Australian Institute of Criminology, Australian Criminal Intelligence Commission, the Attorney-General's Department, Australian Border Force, and the Commonwealth Director of Public Prosecutions] have highly specialised datasets that are very valuable in their own right, but it's when you start to bring them together that you see a perspective of criminal behaviour that you generally can't see when you're looking at one slice of data by itself."

According to Churchill, the challenging part of such a project is in linking the data, as without a national ID, the government departments are linking data such as name, address, and date of birth across disparate datasets.

"Of course that's a bit of a technical challenge to accurately link datasets where people could be trying to obfuscate their identity among the different datasets, so that's part of the challenge we've got a long way to solve," she added.

DHS kicked off a data-matching program of work that saw it automatically issue debt notices to those in receipt of welfare payments through the country's Centrelink scheme.

The Online Compliance Intervention (OCI) program had automatically compared the income people declared to the Australian Taxation Office (ATO) against income declared to Centrelink, and the debt notice -- along with a 10 percent recovery fee -- was subsequently issued when a disparity in government data was detected.

One large error in the system dubbed "robo-debt" was that it was incorrectly calculating a recipient's income, basing fortnightly pay on their annual salary rather than taking a cumulative 26-week snapshot of what an individual was paid.

DHS in March told a Finance and Public Administration References Committee that its data-matching program went well, because it produced savings, ignoring claims from individuals the OCI system had caused them feelings of anxiety, fear, and humiliation, and dealing with the system had been an incredibly stressful period of their lives.

In the federal government's 2018-19 Budget handed down earlier this week, DHS was given further funding to extend the data-matching project.

"Income data matching activities between DHS and ATO will be extended to enhance the integrity of social welfare payments," the government said in its Budget documents.

"From 1 July 2021, DHS will continue to enhance the integrity of social welfare payments, by extending data matching activities with the Australian Taxation Office ... this measure builds on previous measures to improve welfare payment integrity, supporting these activities until 30 June 2022."

The government said it is expecting to achieve savings of AU$299.3 million over three years from 2019-20 by extending DHS' fraud detection and debt recovery activities thanks to combining with the Department of Social Services' efficiencies of AU$373.4 million by 2021-22.

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