ATO retrieval software bug leads to lost tax docs – Storage – Software

An internal software tool used by the Australian Taxation Office (ATO) to retrieve historical tax documents has stopped working and cannot be fixed, cutting off a key data source used by abuse survivors in their compensation claims.

Lawyers acting for more than 700 victims of abuse have been told they can no longer get access to copies of income tax returns or notices of assessment for 1990-96.

The 20-year-old software tool used to access the documents no longer works.

Workaround attempts to manually reconstruct the tax documents from data spread across multiple database tables also failed, because the data in those fields is incomplete. 

In a six-month period alone, the ATO said 1400 requests for tax returns and assessment notices were “quarantined” because of the technical problems.

The problems have ultimately forced the ATO to stop offering to find tax documents from before 1997.

Compensation claims

Abuse survivors often need to call on the tax office to source records of historical income, which are important to calculating claims for compensation.

In some compensation cases, where the alleged perpetrator is now deceased, survivors are being pressured “to accept paltry amounts or to walk away altogether”, one law firm recently told Guardian Australia.

This emerging dynamic makes having accurate income records more critical to survivors’ cases.

Arnold Thomas & Becker, a Melbourne personal injury law firm, has used ATO data from earlier than 1997 for the “vast majority of cases”, a lawyer for the firm, Cameron Doig, told iTnews.

Doig, who filed a Freedom of Information (FoI) request [pdf] on the issue, said plaintiffs who have suffered sexual abuse as children at churches, schools, scout clubs, orphanages and other institutions need the data to prove and quantify long-term financial damage.

“This cuts off our clients’ clarity about their history, and makes the task of reconstructing that history even more difficult,” Doig said.

“Abuse survivors struggle to piece together shattered lives. Sporadic work and insecure living mean survivors rely heavily on the ATO to prove what they’ve earned throughout their life.”

Survivors have two options to pursue compensation.

The national redress scheme, set up in response to a Royal Commission, can provide compensation capped at $150,000. However, it has a backlog of claims, and “with an average payout of only $80,000 … offers grossly inadequate and massively delayed compensation,” according to Doig.

“Tragically a number of applicants have died before being compensated,” he said.

Court-based claims now face complications with the ATO unable to retrieve the historical income data. 

The ATO acknowledges its standing as a data custodian, in documents obtained under FoI, stating that it is seen as “a trusted source of information”.

“The courts and administrative bodies assessing such claims specifically request the provision of ATO-held information as supporting evidence,” Debra Roberts from ATO’s Operational Policy, Assurance and Law division advised in internal correspondence. 

Reconstructing the data issue

While the ATO is not required to keep records for this long in a queryable and retrievable state – the legal requirement for retention is “five years after last action” – it still offers a free service for accessing historic tax documents.

The current webpage for that service details a cutoff for access to income tax returns and notice of assessments earlier than 1997 and for payment summaries earlier than 2002. Previous versions of the page, accessed via Wayback Machine, did not declare a limitation.

Doig also noted in an email that “previously we have had no issue requesting income tax returns, notices of assessment and payment summaries back to 1990 where these are available in an individual taxpayer’s case.”

The limitation is recent, and is ultimately a result of a software bug in the ATO’s retrieval tool STAC, and the tax office being unable to reconstruct the tax documents from information held in multiple data tables, because that data is incomplete.

Doig’s FoI for documents relating to why the ATO cut off access does not reveal the first error that stopped STAC from retrieving the data in July last year. 

However, the IT team discussed various workarounds over the next three months, before deciding that the underlying problem was the inconsistency and incompleteness of data.

The ATO describes STAC as “the system retrieval tool needed to provide copies of tax documents to clients for the period from 1990 onwards”, and as a 20-year-old system.

Troubleshooting through the back half of 2021 and into the early part of 2022 by the tax office’s enterprise solutions and technology (EST) unit ultimately could not find a way to make the records retrievable.

Technical notes show the ATO, at one stage, tried to extract data from a different repository and re-assemble it into income tax returns or notices of assessment documents.

“As it’s quite a complicated procedure to extract the data from several tables and then reconstruct each record, it requires a lot of CPU which is more readily available after hours,” technical staff advised.

“It is expected that we will be able to load the flatfile to the mainframe early next week. The records will then be viewable on STAC.”

However, the data was found to be incomplete, and a trail of emails cast doubt on whether the ATO should release incomplete records. Developers said they were unsure “what information might be missing so should we be issuing copies that have details missing?”

In February this year, internal email correspondence from ATO tech staff advised they had been “unable to fix outstanding issues with 1990-1996 data. All issues that could be resolved have been resolved. Issues still outstanding are due to incomplete data on the DWH [data warehouse].”

The tax office determined that it “cannot provide information if this cannot be retrieved from our systems or the information is inaccurate/incomplete”.

An ATO spokesperson would not reveal how the 1990-96 records were originally transferred to the data warehouse, which could explain why they are incomplete. 

“The quality of historic data can vary (for example, due to pre-digital record-keeping systems) and the ATO will not provide data or documents to taxpayers if we cannot verify their quality and completeness,” the spokesperson said.

The spokesperson said that “quality, integrity and fullness of the data” is one of the factors it weighs when deciding if it “will retain records longer than we are legally obliged to”.

The spokesperson told iTnews another factor the ATO considered is “the resourcing requirements of storing, maintaining and disseminating the data”.

“Depending on the systems used, maintaining historic data can be costly and resource-intensive,” the spokesperson said.

“As a publicly funded organisation, the ATO must be mindful of these costs and weigh them against the level of public interest and demand.” 

Doig said it was “disheartening to hear that the ATO has lost access to years of taxpayer data.”

“We hope that increased resourcing and improved policies and procedures will safeguard taxpayers’ information in future,” he said.