“Raising further concerns…”

One thing I have noticed since leaving the Department of Immigration and Border Protection (nee Citizenship?). I’m not sure how to put this, but there seems to be a perception the Department should operate flawlessly.

This Guardian piece on the asylum data breach states the following:

More than a thousand people in the department would have had access to information of similar sensitivity to that which was released, a former department manager says, raising further concerns about its handling of personal information.

I saw my share of dodgy dealings inside the department but wide availability of data should not be a concern. Some thoughts:

  • The divisions of staff looking after offshore facilities, onshore detention, community detention and compliance would a substantial proportion of all departmental staff, a population currently around ~9500. Why should it raise “further concerns” that staff have access to data which is required for their jobs? Names, visa status and country of origin are basic demographic data. All staff fall under the APS Code of Conduct and are required to follow protocols re: the Privacy Act. These people don’t grab data and try and sell it to nefarious foreign governments.
  • Isn’t the fact this many staff have access also an indication of the complexity and scale of the policy and operational resources being directed to asylum seekers? To me, this is comforting, knowing many people are working to best deal in an environment of national importance. 
  • The flip side is, something serious happened that shouldn’t have happened. Does this mean the Executive should go into lock down and restrict everyone’s access to required operational data? Hopefully not or a range of other issues will quickly arise. Restricting this type of access would cripple information flows and lead to unknown delays and mistakes.

As a policy officer in two divisions, I saw multiple files and had access to multiple databases with “personal information”. Names, visa class, salaries, occupations, locations. This data helped to inform policy direction for the government and research to improve visa programs. The more you lock up matters within organisations, the harder it becomes to respond quickly and learn from what should be viewed as a vital source of information.

This is a massive bureaucracy. It is responsible for government policy which has changed basically overnight last September. I’m not trying to apologise for the department and this is not an excuse for the data breach – something which has placed lives at risk – but some context for how matters are perceived outside of the department against what the likely opinion is within the department. The fact people have access to this data should not be a surprise and it should not be viewed as a negative or contributory factor.

Endnote: The Guardian’s coverage has been excellent on asylum policy and operations. This is not a reflection on them so much as a broader sense I get from various writing within the media and conversations with people I respect. That particular paragraph symbolises this sentiment well.

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