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Data matching

Information matching generally involves the comparison of one set of records with another, to find records in both sets of data that relate to the same person. When it is done by a computer, it is known as data matching. An example is the comparison of a list of people receiving a monetary benefit with a list of people who have been imprisoned. In some programmes, it is the absence of a person in one set of records that is of interest. The process is commonly used to detect fraud in public assistance programmes or to trace people wanted by the State. Less frequently, the technique is used to assist individuals (e.g. to identify someone who has not claimed an entitlement).

A person's privacy can be affected by information matching when agencies are:

  • using information obtained for one purpose for an unrelated purpose
  • 'fishing' in government records with the hope of finding wrongdoing by someone
  • automating decisions affecting individuals and removing human judgment
  • presuming people guilty simply through their being listed in a computer or requiring people to prove their innocence
  • multiplying the effects on individuals of errors in some government databases; and
  • undermining personal information by dispersing information obtained by one agency in confidence onto a variety of other agencies' databases.

If unchecked, information or data matching would seriously undermine people's trust in government. To address the risks, the Privacy Act regulates the practice of information matching in the public sector. It does this by having the following controls put in place:

  • authorisation - making sure that only programmes clearly justified in the public interest are approved
  • operation - ensuring that programmes are operated consistently with fair information practices
  • evaluation - subjecting programmes to periodic reviews and possible cancellation.