Brisbane to host Human Services' digital forensics lab

The Department of Human Services has unveiled the latest weapon in its digital crime-fighting arsenal, announcing the launch of a dedicated forensics lab to tackle organised crime and welfare fraud.

The new facility will provide the DHS with “a scientific, technically advanced and secure facility” to analyse digital evidence to aid in criminal fraud investigations.

Its remit will cover in-house investigations through the DHS’s own Taskforce Integrity operations, as well as lending its hand to other federal agencies’ anti-fraud activities, including the National Disability Insurance Agency and the Australian Federal Police.

Brisbane will play host to the new DHS forensics team, four years after the launch of its first lab in Canberra.

“The new facility will allow the department to continue to detect and disrupt organised crime activity, and to stop the exploitation of vulnerable customers and communities,” Minister for Government Services, Stuart Robert said in a statement.

“Advanced technology in the laboratory will allow investigators to obtain and deliver crucial evidence in investigations,” he added.

Canberra’s digital forensics team has, since launch in 2015, contributed to more than 50 investigations and analysed hundreds of seized devices, leading to “numerous positive prosecution outcomes”, he said.

“The department places great emphasis on protecting the integrity of taxpayer money through strong safeguards of the Centrelink and Medicare programs.”

Robert acknowledged the increasingly complexity of criminals’ digital toolkits today, “with fraudsters exploiting technological advances to commit crimes”.

The DHS’s 2017–18 annual report revealed the department completed 3,301 evaluations and 748 investigations of fraud that year.

In 2017, the DHS deployed an automated data‑sharing platform to “identify and respond to threats to the integrity of the welfare system”, enabling greater data sharing between the Australian Transaction Reports and Analysis Centre and the department.

Recent deployments of data-matching technologies yielded $405 million in savings for the department in 2017–18, DHS figures reveal.

The launch of a ‘Real Time Risk Profiling’ program has, according to the department, “strengthened its capability in identifying and intervening in potentially fraudulent or erroneous claims before they go into payment”.

While the extent of the forensics lab's investigative remit remains to be seen, the DHS' recent debt recovery efforts have drawn sharp rebuke from welfare groups, legal aid bodies, and even a former member Administrative Appeals Tribunal. The department is currently facing several legal challenges to its scandal-plagued automated debt recovery scheme – dubbed 'robodebt' – which has seen the government demand repayment from thousands of former and existing Australian welfare recipients.

Figures from the DHS released during a Senate Estimates hearing in March 2019 reveal that 444,989 robodebts were raised from July 2016 to December 2018, with a median total of $1,028 per repayment request.