The Australian Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade (DFAT) has accidentally disclosed the email addresses of more than 2,720 travellers struggling to return home from overseas.
The message, which was reportedly sent before midday on Wednesday, notified recipients that interest-free loans were available for “the most vulnerable Australian citizens whose return to Australia has been impacted by the restrictions arising from Covid-19”, The Guardian reported.
The department scrambled to try and fix the error by recalling the original email, which included recipients’ email addresses, and by admitting the fault. It also asked the recipients to delete it.
“We request your assistance in immediately deleting that email from your IT system and refraining from any further forwarding of the email, to protect the privacy of the individuals concerned,” DFAT said.
On Wednesday night, the department tweeted an apology for the error and said “no other personal information was disclosed”.
“We want to get you home, and are working as hard as we can to do so,” DFAT wrote.
We apologise for unintentionally disclosing email addresses of stranded Australians we’re trying to help get home. No other personal information was disclosed. We want to get you home, and are working as hard as we can to do so.
— DFAT🇦🇺 (@dfat) September 30, 2020
The Guardian said “about 200” private emails had been visible in the header of the email. While according to a recipient of the email who spoke to ABC News, as many as 1,021 people who are liaising with the department for help have had their email addresses shared with strangers.
However, a DFAT spokesperson confirmed to Travel Weekly that as many as 2,727 people’s email addresses had been shared.
“Those affected were provided with a point of contact should they have any concerns or require further advice,” the spokesperson said. “DFAT is reviewing its internal processes and has taken additional measures to ensure this mistake is not repeated.”
The department had issued the email to provide details of the Financial Hardship Program, which allows people to take out a small loan to help them get by while overseas, or to help fund their trip back to Australia.
It is understood that recipients of the email, who were mistakenly listed in the ‘to’ field instead of the ‘bcc’ field, represented 7 per cent of people registered with DFAT for COVID-19 overseas financial assistance.
The email addresses were not distributed more widely by the department, Travel Weekly understands.
In response to the news, Deputy Labor Leader and Shadow Minister for Home Affairs Kristina Keneally called for Prime Minister Scott Morrison to explain how the data breach occurred “on his government’s watch” and what he is doing to help the “almost 30,000 stranded Aussies get home by Christmas”.
— Kristina Keneally (@KKeneally) September 30, 2020
At least 26,800 Australians are struggling to return home from overseas, with a Senate inquiry last week hearing from eight Aussies either stranded or left trapped outside the country due to overseas arrival caps.
Several Australians are so desperate to return home they would be willing to wear tracking ankle bracelets to enforce home quarantine – if that gave authorities the confidence to increase the arrival caps, according to The Guardian.
Despite federal and state leaders agreeing to increase arrival caps at last week’s national cabinet from 4,000 to 6,000 weekly arrivals, the inquiry heard Australians were still facing cancelled flights that had been rescheduled into 2021.
It comes after airlines acknowledged they are cancelling economy, and increasingly business class tickets, so they can prioritise more expensive passengers to remain profitable.
The embarrassing blunder by DFAT also comes after it reportedly terminated as many as 100 contract employees due to budget constraints, with some of those having worked in IT and policy roles.
[Note: This article has been updated to reflects comments from the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade.]
Featured image source: Foursquare/Daniel W.