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On March 14, 2014, midnight
The Department of Immigration is writing to asylum seekers detained across Australia to inform them their personal details were publicly disclosed in a massive data breach, with sources alleging the department is coercing them to sign for receipt of the letter. In February Guardian Australia revealed almost 10,000 asylum seekers had their personal details accidentally published online by the department in one of the biggest privacy breaches in Australian history. Dozens of asylum seekers are lodging court proceedings, claiming the breach, which disclosed information including full names, nationalities and dates of birth, would endanger their lives if they were returned. More than 30 of these cases are being lodged by asylum seekers in Villawood detention centre, in Sydney, with a directions hearing due in the federal circuit court later this month.
The wording of the letter, signed by Immigration Department’s secretary, Martin Bowles, claims “information was available online for a short period of time before it was removed from the department’s website” but it does not state that anyone who had downloaded the file, which was available for over a week, still potentially has access to the information. The letter continues: “We deeply regret inadvertently allowing potential unauthorised access to your personal information. The department takes privacy very seriously, and has in place a range of policies and procedures to ensure that personal information is managed properly. The information was never intended to be in the public domain, and the department has taken a number of steps to ensure that this sort of incident does not happen again.” An asylum seeker at Villawood told Guardian Australia they were asked to sign the letter without reading it, and that some detainees were asked to sign it without the presence of a translator. The Villawood asylum seeker said department staff were “furious” when other asylum seekers did not sign the letter. Another asylum seeker in Western Australia told Victoria Martin at the Refugee Rights Action Network they were threatened with transfer to Nauru if they did not sign the letter. This follows one asylum seeker in Villawood signing a statutory declaration last week, alleging the department forced her to sign a waiver of her privacy rights or be forced onto a plane and returned to China. A spokesperson for the immigration minister, Scott Morrison, confirmed that asylum seekers were “required to sign to confirm their identity as the intended recipient of the notification letter” but did not comment on the allegations of coercion. The letter informs affected asylum seekers the department will “assess any implications for you personally as part of its normal processes” and informs them more information will be provided on request. It adds that asylum seekers should discuss the breach with their Immigration Department case manager. David Manne, director of the Refugee and Immigration Legal Centre, called on the government to provide independent help to understand the full extent of the data breach. “They must be provided with full details about what information was disclosed, clarity about the process for presenting any claims about fears they have for their safety and need for protection, any fears and consequences for family overseas,” Manne said. “They must also be provided with independent help to understand their situation and act upon any fears and claims they may have under law [by presenting any claims to the government for assessment under due process]. People deserve a fair go before the law about what could well be life or death matters resulting from the government’s breach.” A spokesperson the minister continued: “The government is addressing the privacy issues and its obligations as a result of the breach. “Implications for individuals affected will be addressed on a case-by-case basis.” Guardian Australia understands that since the legal actions from Villawood were filed, all internet access has been stopped for detainees.
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