Jan 112017
 

Last year the Australian Federal government had a smart idea. To fix its chronic budget deficit, it would use data matching to claw back an estimated three billion dollars in social security overspending.

Unfortunately for tens of thousands of Australians the reality has turned out to very different with the system mistakenly flagging thousands of former claimants as being debtors.

How the Australian government messed up its welfare debt recovery is a cautionary tale of misusing data.

Data mis-match

At its core, the problem is due to the bureaucrats mismatching information.

Australia’s social security system requires unemployment or sickness benefit claimants file a fortnightly income statement with Centrelink, the agency that administers the system, and their payments are adjusted accordingly.

Most of those on benefits only spend a short time on them. According to the Department of Social Services, two thirds of recipients are off welfare within twelve months of starting.

Flawed numbers

Despite knowing this, the bureaucrats decided to take annual tax returns, average the individual’s income across the year and match the result against the fortnightly payment.

That obviously flawed and dishonest method has meant hundreds of former welfare recipients have been falsely accused of receiving overpayments.

Compounding the problem, the system frequently mis-identifies income because it fails to recognise employers may use different legal names, leading to people having their wages double counted and being accused of not reporting work.

Shock and awe

Under pressure from their political masters, the aggressive tactics of Centrelink and its debt collectors have left many of those accused shocked and distressed.

I can barely breathe when I think about this. My time period to pay is up tomorrow. I asked them for proof before I pay and I have heard horror stories of debt collection agencies, people being asked to pay so much, people being told there will be a black mark on their credit. I am so terrified. It’s so stupid for me to be terrified but I can’t help it. I am a student, I can’t afford anything!

Reading the minister’s response to criticisms, it’s hard not to come to the conclusion that intimidation was a key objective.

The numbers of people involved are staggering. The department of Social Services reported 732,100 Australians received the Newstart unemployment allowance in 2015-16. Should 66% of those have moved off the benefit during the tax year then up to 488,000 people will receive ‘please explain’ notices.

Nearly half a million people being falsely accused of welfare fraud is bad enough, but that is only last year’s figures – due to a  law change by the previous Labor government, there is no limit to how far back Centrelink can go to recover alleged debts.

The System is working

Claiming the Centrelink debacle is a failure of Big Data and IT systems is wrong – the system is working as designed. The false positives are the result of a deliberate decision by agency bosses and their ministers to feed flawed data into the system.

How this will work out for the Australian government as tens of thousands more people receive unreasonable demands remains to be seen. Recent comments from the minister indicate they are hoping their ‘tough on welfare cheats’ line will resonate with the electorate.

Regardless of how well  it turns out for the Australian government, the misuse of data by its agencies is a worrying example of how governments can use the information they collect to harass citizens for short term political advantage.

Beyond welfare

While many Australians can dismiss the travails of Centrelink ‘clients’ as not concerning them, the same data matching techniques have long been used by other agencies – not least the Australian Taxation Office.

With the Federal Treasurer threatening a campaign against corporate tax dodging and the failure of the welfare crackdown to deliver the promised funds, it’s not hard to see small and medium businesses being caught in a similar campaign using inappropriate data.

More importantly, the Australian Public Service’s senior management’s incompetence, lack of ethics and proven inability to manage data systems is something that should deeply concern the nation’s taxpayers.

In a connected age, where masses of information is being collected on all of us, this is something every citizen should be objecting to.

Mar 212016
 

What’s your ethnic affinity? Apparently Facebook thinks its algorithm can guess your race based upon the nature of your posts.

This application is an interesting, and dangerous, development although it shouldn’t be expected that it’s any more accurate than the plethora of ‘guess your age/nationality/star sign’ sites that trawl through Facebook pages.

Guessing your race is something clumsy and obvious but its clear that services like Google, LinkedIn and Facebook have a mass of data on each of their millions of users that enables them to crunch some big numbers and come up with all manner of conclusions.

Some of these will be useful to governments, marketers and businesses and in some cases it may lead to unforeseen consequences.

The truth may lie in the data but if we don’t understand the questions we’re asking, we risk creating a whole new range of problems.

Oct 062015
 

“Privacy is a fundamental human right”. A short, but sweet and fascinating, NPR interview with Apple CEO Tim Cook.

Cook goes onto to avoid discussing the likelihood of Apple Cars and expounds the advantages of repatriating corporate profits back to the US, something we can expect cash rich companies like Apple to start agitating for after the next Presidential election.

The interview, which is only eight minutes long, is well worth a listen as Apple positions itself against competing internet giants Google and Facebook over the topic of privacy.

 

Aug 022015
 

Last May at the ThingsCon conference in Berlin a group of European designers came together to form the IoT Manifesto.

Now vendors have the ability to put a chip into almost anything companies and designers are tempted to add connectivity simply for the sake of doing so.

In many cases this is opens up a range of security risks ranging from the screaming baby monitor to the hackable jeep.

Coupled with the security risks of your intimate devices being hacked there’s the related privacy risks as millions of devices collect data ranging from how hard you press your car’s brake pedal through to last time you burned your breakfast toast.

In an era where governments and businesses are seeking to amass even more information about us, there are genuine concerns about what that data is going to be used for and why it is being collected in the first place.

The IoT manifesto looks to manage these problems facing the sector through ten guiding design principles;

  1. Don’t believe the hype around the IoT
  2. Only design useful things
  3. Deliver benefits to all stakeholders
  4. Keep everything secure
  5. Promote a culture of privacy
  6. Gather only a minimal amount of data
  7. Be transparent about who that data will be shared with
  8. Give users control over their data
  9. Design durable products
  10. Use the IoT and its design to help people

All of the principles are laudable and it’s not hard to think that meeting the guidelines would make devices and services that aren’t just useful and safe but also simpler, cheaper and more effective.

There’s many ethical, business and safety issues facing the Internet of Things as connected devices rollout across almost every industry. The IoT Manifesto may well be a good framework in which to design them and the cloud services they’ll depend upon.

May 282015
 
radio programs for techonology, web, social media, cloud computing and computer advice

Paul Wallbank regularly joins Tony Delroy on ABC Nightlife on to discuss how technology affects your business and life.

Along with covering the tech topics of the day listeners are welcome to call, text or message in with their thoughts and questions about technology, change and what it means to their families, work and communities.

If you missed the May program, it’s now available on our Soundcloud account.

For the May 2015 program Tony and Paul looked at some of the gadgets coming out of the Internet of Things, what your social media posts say about you and Mary Meeker’s big Internet Trends report.

Join us

Tune in on your local ABC radio station from 10pm Australian Eastern Summer time or listen online at www.abc.net.au/nightlife.

We’d love to hear your views so join the conversation with your on-air questions, ideas or comments; phone in on 1300 800 222 within Australia or +61 2 8333 1000 from outside Australia.

You can SMS Nightlife’s talkback on 19922702, or through twitter to @paulwallbank using the #abcnightlife hashtag or visit the Nightlife Facebook page.

Apr 042015
 
The law applies online to social media and other web services

Automakers Say You Don’t Really Own Your Car states the Electronic Frontiers Foundation.

In their campaign to amend the US Digital Millenium Copyright Act to give vehicle owners the right to access and modify their automobiles’ software the EFF raises an important point.

Should the software licensing model be applied to these devices then purchasers don’t really own them but rather have a license to use them until the vendor deems overwise.

Cars, of course, are not the only devices where this problem arises. The core of the entire Internet of Things lies in the software running intelligent equipment, not the hardware. If that software is proprietary and closed then no purchaser of a smart device truly owns it.

Locking down the smarthome

This raises problems in smarthomes, offices and businesses where the devices people come to depend upon are ‘black boxes’ that they aren’t allowed to peer into. It’s not hard to see how in industrial or agricultural applications that arrangement will often be at best unworkable.

Four years ago tech industry leader Marc Andreessen pointed out how software is eating the world; that most of the value in an information rich economy lies in the computer programs that processes the data, not the hardware which collects and distributes it.

That shift was flagged decades ago when the initial fights over software patents occurred in the 1980s and 90s and today we’re facing the consequences of poorly thought out laws, court decisions and patent approvals that now challenge the concepts of ownership as we know it.

Is ownership outdated?

However it may well be that ‘ownership’ itself is an outdated concept. We could be entering a period where most of our possessions are leased rather than owned.

If we are in a period where ownership is an antiquated concept then does it matter that our cars, fitness bands, kettles, smoke alarms and phones are in effect owned by a corporation incorporated in Delaware that pays most of its tax in the Dutch Antilles?

Who owns the smartcar’s data?

The next question of course is if the software in our smart devices is secret and untouchable then who owns the data they generate?

Ownership of a smartcar’s data could well be the biggest issue of all in the internet of things and the collection of Big Data. That promises to be a substantial battle.

In the meantime, it may not be a good idea to tinker too much with your car’s software or the data it generates.

Mar 262015
 
Big data takes our online, shopping and social media use it is the business challenge for our time

This morning I’m speaking on ABC Radio’s Overnights about the risks of the Australian government’s law to force telecommunications companies to retain users’ metadata for two years.

While the act, currently before the Senate having passed the House of Representatives last week after the poorly named ‘opposition’ Labor Party supported it, mandates that telcos and ISPs will have to retain the details of users’ connection times, places and type of device for two years and that government agencies will be able to access this data without a warrant.

The program was broadcast on 26 March 2015 at 4.15am Eastern Time with Trevor Chappell and is can be listened to on the ABC radio website.

Some resources on the data retention bill follow;