Services Australia testifies Cellebrite tech only used for fraud and identity theft cases

The Australian government has so far refunded AU$740 million of the AU$752 million robo-debt it wrongfully sent out to hundreds of thousands of Australians.
Written by Campbell Kwan, Contributor

A demonstration of Cellebrite technology being used.

Image: Getty Images

In testimony to Australia's Senate Estimates, Services Australia said its use of Cellebrite software has only been for looking into fraud and identity theft matters.

Cellebrite, an Israeli digital intelligence company, is best known for its controversial phone-cracking technology, which it previously claimed could download most data from almost any device on behalf of government agencies. 

"We're very aware that we have a role of assurance over AU$200 billion of social support in Medicare and Centrelink programs and so the integrity of those outlays is important," Services Australia acting-deputy CEO of payments and integrity Chris Birrer said.

"We do have a system of compliance in terms of ensuring that people are complying with their mutual obligations under the income support payment and that we take very seriously making sure people are paid the right amount."

Facing questioning around how Services Australia uses Cellebrite's technology, Birrer said it is only used in fraud and identity theft cases, which has included cases where people have falsely claimed the government disaster relief payments, uploaded images that do not relate to Australia to commit fraud, and stolen the identities of actual customers to hijack payments.

According to The Guardian, Services Australia reportedly has a AU$1.2 million contract with the digital intelligence company.  

When asked by Senators whether Services Australia could guarantee that the privacy rights of Australian citizens would not be violated, Birrer answered vaguely, opting to instead explain how the agency provides information to customers about how to make reporting changes.

"We publish all information in relation to what [customers'] obligations are in terms of particularly reporting changes of circumstances. That's made very clear in terms of when people enter onto payment and in the information we provide. In fact, we've got a lot of success now in nudging people and presenting information to customers just to remind them to report changes in circumstances that might have resulted in an adjustment to their payment," he said.

Services Australia, which falls under the Minister for Government Services remit, was also questioned about its handling of robo-debt, the government income compliance system that wrongfully issued debts to hundreds of thousands of people.

Of the AU$752 million owed by the government for its bungled robo-debt system, AU$740 million has so far been refunded, Services Australia CEO Rebecca Skinner said Senate Estimates. 

The remaining AU$12 million, which is owed to around 9,200 customers, continued to be outstanding as the agency is still trying to locate these customers, Skinner said. She explained that these customers were harder to find due to estate issues and some of them no longer being customers.

Throughout Services Australia's appearance, Minister for Government Services Linda Reynolds was also repeatedly asked why she continued to refuse to provide documents about the legal advice Services Australia received in implementing robo-debt. Reynolds, in response, maintained that Services Australia's claim to public interest immunity continued to stand.

Since the end of 2019, a Senate committee has been seeking for Services Australia to provide information regarding the legal advice it received in implementing the robo-debt system, while the agency has refused to provide that information under a claim of public interest immunity. 

Services Australia's claim of public interest immunity was rejected in February last year as the Senate committee said the reasons provided for that claim to exist were insufficient. The committee then similarly rejected Reynolds' claim of public interest immunity in August.   

"The Senate has now rejected your PII claim on multiple occasions. And this is now hitting the point where it's absolutely obstructive to the work of the Senate on behalf of the Australian people. We're not talking about a few people here. Hundreds of thousands of Australians was served any legal debt by your government," Labor Senator Deborah O'Neill said.

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