Files containing the confidential information of 33 clients were discovered up for sale at the Alice Springs recycling centre following a ‘messy’ refurbishment of Territory Families offices in April.
By
Claudianna Blanco

Source:
NITV News
5 Jul 2017 - 6:41 PM  UPDATED 5 Jul 2017 - 6:42 PM

Dylan Voller’s fears became a reality when he received a phone call yesterday from Territory Families asking if he had received a letter explaining documents containing sensitive information had been “recovered” after having been lost “accidentally”.

“They said that they were doing a refurbishment and they accidentally sent the files in the cabinet [to the tip],” he said.

“They won’t say how many more are missing, they just said 17 files, they saved 17 documents.”

The files included sensitive information identifying Territory Families clients and their families. They included personal information of clients potentially relevant to the Royal Commission, confidential court documents, medical information and employee records.

A messy move

Back in April, the Territory Families (TF) offices in Alice Springs were refurbished. In a statement sent to NITV News, Rex Mooney, Chief Executive Officer, Alice Springs Town Council explains that in the process, a contractor delivered 5 cabinets to the Regional Waste Management Facility (WMC) on Friday 21th April 2017, “three of which were delivered to the town’s Rediscovery Centre for sale, and two for demolition. The three cabinets were made available for sale on Sunday the 23rd April 2017.

“The three cabinets were withdrawn from sale and secured by Rediscovery Centre staff the following morning, immediately after a member of the public identified the three cabinets as having contents that were potentially confidential. None of the cabinets were sold to the public,” he said.

Territory Families recovered the contents of the cabinets the following day and launched an internal investigation given the seriousness of the breach.

It also commissioned an external investigation, which revealed Territory Families did not follow best practices during the refurbishment.

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Despite both investigations concluding the loss of files were accidental, the external investigation exposes that there was a “failure to itemise and record all assets/furniture held at Level 1 Mwerre House prior to relocation … and a failure to mark/designate all assets/furniture for relocation or disposal.”

For Mr Voller, these mistakes are costly. He became the poster boy for the Royal Commission into the Protection and Detention of Children in the Northern Territory after the ABC's Four Corners aired the program ‘Australia's Shame’ in July 2016, which revealed the mistreatment of youth inside Darwin's Don Dale Detention Centre. 

“Someone should have been going through the whole place to get the documents out before someone gets into that office. [That should’ve happened] before being able to even move the cabinet,” Mr Voller complains.

“The department of families haven’t done their job properly and they’ve breached the act that has to keep that stuff confidential.”   

"How many files were in there? Maybe there’s a page missing… There’s stuff in there I don’t want people seeing.”

Mr Voller visited the Territory Families offices today to discuss the situation in person.

“I went and picked up the files up off them this morning, the ones that they got back, the ones they did have. And I’m reading through it and there’s some disturbing stuff, so I’m anxious about who may have read it already. Who’s seen this stuff already?,” he asks.

Despite Territory Families knowing the files had been lost in April, they didn’t notify the public of the incident until 20 June through a media release. When asked about the delay, a spokesperson told NITV News they wanted to investigate the matter thoroughly before notifying those affected.

However, Mr Voller believes he should’ve been told about the breach as soon as they knew. He says he has been anxious about the incident since he found out about the recovered file cabinets through an ABC article published on 20 June.

“I’ve been stressing out after having seen that article. Even though it didn’t say the names, I’ve been since then thinking, what if my files are in there? But then to get the clarification that my files were in there, now I’m stressing out even more. How many files were in there? Maybe there’s a page missing… There’s stuff in there I don’t want people seeing.”

The external investigation report, dated 24 May, recommended that “urgent notification of all affected parties is essential, considering the highly sensitive nature of much of the recovered information,” but the notification process took over a month.

The report considered “appropriate” for Territory Families to investigate the matter and attempt to ascertain relevant facts prior to notifying affected individuals, but it says, “now that the investigation phase is largely complete, Territory Families should proceed to notify affected parties as soon as possible, in order of risk.”

The report recommended notifying the Territory Families Royal Commission Response Team first, briefing the Minister for Children and Families “as soon as possible”, “prior to affected parties being notified”, as well as the Official Secretary to the Royal Commission.

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Territory Families assured NITV News they believe all the lost documents were recovered. However, the external investigation into the matter says: “it is impossible to retrospectively identify all records held … prior to the relocation on 20-21 April and consequently, it is not possible to confirm that the records recovered from WMC on 24-26 April 2017 comprise all of the records disposed [of].”

The investigation also states: “It is unlikely, but not impossible that TF records have been disclosed to third parties through the sale of recycled furniture by the WMC.

“It is more likely that TF records have been destroyed at the WMC. However … it is not possible to establish what records may have been destroyed or disclosed.”

For Mr Voller, these answers are not good enough.

“They’ve just apologised and said it was an accident.

“I’m not sure what to believe. I’m just curious to find out who has read [what].”

“Everyone has got their suspicions. I don’t want to make accusations because it’s not fair towards them … I’m really more anxious.”

However, Mr Voller said he is unsure whether he’ll take action.

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The Chief Executive Officer of Territory Families has sent a letter to every individual whose personal information was contained in the documents, to apologise and provide information regarding this incident and their right to complain to the NT Information Commissioner.

The agency has also said they would follow recommendations made in the internal investigation “to improve process and procedures regarding the care of documents and office refurbishments”.

For their part, the Alice Springs tip has also put new procedures in place.

“It is the responsibility of the owner to remove private information from items before delivery to the Regional Waste Management Facility.

“Regardless, since this incident has occurred, the Rediscovery Centre has been checking items on delivery to prevent a similar event from occurring.”

Have you been affected by this breach? If so, we’d like to hear from you. Please contact us through our Facebook page.