Details of 96,000 public servants at risk following privacy scare

Details of 96,000 public servants at risk following privacy scare

The federal government faces its second data breach scare in as many weeks

Confidential information of more than 96,000 public servants could be at risk following the second federal government data breach scare to emerge in as many weeks, according to reports.

As reported by Fairfax Media, the government’s public service workplace authority, Australian Public Service Commission (APSC), has withdrawn from public access a data set containing information from its annual employee census after fears that employees’ confidential information may not be secure.

The fear, according to Fairfax, was that the identification codes for departments and agencies could be used to identify the individuals who filled in the internal census – which was done under the condition of anonymity.

While the data set has been taken from public view to be ‘washed’ of identifying features, the Commission has confirmed that it was downloaded up to 60 times before it was withdrawn.

For its part, the APSC has said that no individual identifiable information was put in the public domain.

"This year, for the first time, the APS employee census dataset included a numeric code for each APS agency," the a spokesperson for the Commission told ARN in a statement. "No agency was named.

"We decided that extra care should be taken to make certain that individual officers could not be identified, especially if cross referenced with a range of other publicly available data," it said.

The revelation comes just weeks after the Health Department removed Medicare data from its website after academics found it was possible to derive certain service provider ID numbers in Medical Benefits Schedule datasets, published on 1 August.

The University of Melbourne researchers, Dr Chris Culhane, Dr Benjamin Rubinstein, and Dr Vanessa Teague, discovered that they could decrypt the service provider ID numbers from a 10 per cent sample of the Schedule Benefits Schedule published on the government’s site.

The research team notified the government of the potential breach on 12 September, with the Department of Health immediately removing the information from public view.

“The MBS 10 per cent sample dataset does not include names or addresses, but the implications of exposing individual provider IDs are still serious,” the research team said in a statement.

Attorney-General, George Brandis.
Attorney-General, George Brandis.

The government’s latest data privacy scare follows comments by the Attorney-General, George Brandis, that legitimate security researchers, would be exempt from proposed legislation to outlaw the re-identification of de-identified publicly-available datasets.

Much of the work done by security researchers, such as those in the University of Melbourne team that uncovered the Department of Health breach, as well as white hat hackers would have been considered illegal under the proposed laws in their initial form.

“The amendment to the Privacy Act will ensure that valuable research based on analysis of de-identified datasets published by government can continue, while also ensuring appropriate protections for the privacy of citizens,” a spokesperson from the Office of the Attorney-General told ARN on 30 September.

“The need for researchers to test the effectiveness of de-identification techniques or conduct other research into encryption or information security has been considered and will be addressed in the legislation. There will be provision made for legitimate research to continue,” the representative said.

The move to make the re-identification of de-identified government data a criminal offence was taken, in part, to protect data published as part of the government’s Open Data initiative, which aims to make government data open for public use.

“In accepting the benefits of the release of anonymised datasets, the Government also recognises that the privacy of citizens is of paramount importance,” Brandis said in a statement. “However, with advances of technology, methods that were sufficient to de-identify data in the past may become susceptible to re-identification in the future.

“The amendment to the Privacy Act will create a new criminal offence of re-identifying de-identified government data. It will also be an offence to counsel, procure, facilitate, or encourage anyone to do this, and to publish or communicate any re-identified dataset,” he said.

At the time of writing, the Australian Public Service Commission had not responded to ARN's request for comment.

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