Government and governance, National security | Australia

13 October 2017

Australia’s law enforcement and intelligence agencies use separate systems to identify threats to the community. It’s time to invest in a national repository of Australia’s criminal information, Anthony Bergin writes.

At the recent special meeting of the Council of Australian Governments on counter-terrorism the federal government, states, and territories agreed to a package of measures to strengthen Australia’s counter-terrorism plans and arrangements.

In particular, leaders agreed to establish a national facial biometric matching capability that aims to: “protect Australians by making it easier for security and law enforcement agencies to identify people who are suspects or victims of terrorist or other criminal activity, and prevent the use of fake or stolen identities”.

To support the facial biometrics measure, state premiers and territory chief ministers agreed that federal authorities should have access to photos on state driver licences for counter-terrorism and crime-fighting purposes.

While Australian federal police are already able to check state-held photos, it’s a slow process. “It shouldn’t take seven days to be able to verify someone’s identity or seek to match a photograph of somebody that is a person of interest — it should be able to be done seamlessly in real time,” Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull told his counterparts.

Speeding up the current system of access for police around the country is sensible. But what’s also needed is real-time access to information from law-enforcement agencies and the intelligence community across the nation. Currently, law enforcement and intelligence agencies use separate systems 
to identify threats to the community.

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For example, if someone with no criminal record wants to buy a gun in Queensland today, a police check wouldn’t necessarily show the potential buyer had been red-flagged by security agencies.

Similarly, if police stop a vehicle registered in one state, with a driver from another state and passengers from all over the country, how do they assess danger – to themselves and the community?

When a police officer stops a person or executes a search warrant, they should do so with the best possible knowledge of who they’re dealing with.

Most Australians would be surprised to learn that police don’t currently have this capability and would be disturbed by the increased risks faced by our law enforcement officers.

Different data sets across police forces and the intelligence community in Australia need to be melded together in one portal, to red-flag an individual and allow the police to contact the relevant agency.

Three cases make the point. William Watkins murdered two sisters in Melbourne in early 2006. Three days later, he drove to Karratha in Western Australia (WA) where police noticed him for failing to pay for petrol.

The Western Australian police force computer system didn’t show that Watkins was wanted by Victoria police because, at the time, that information couldn’t be accessed. Watkins violently assaulted a police officer with the intention of killing him. This might have been avoided if the WA police had known about Watkins’ background.

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Similar problems arose with father and son fugitives Gino and Mark Stocco who were each sentenced to 40 years’ jail for murder earlier this year. They evaded police in the eastern states for eight years and were finally caught after a wild two-week chase during which they fired at police officers and rammed a police car. Problems with information sharing across state boundaries had complicated the task of capturing these violent criminals.

There were similar information access problems a few years ago in identifying the girl whose remains lay discarded inside a tattered suitcase on the side of a rural highway for almost seven years before they were found. The case involved officers from the Northern Territory, South Australia, New South Wales and the Australian Capital Territory.

These are classic cases of different police systems not ‘talking’ to each other. However, this may soon change. A program is currently being developed that will link criminal and security intelligence across the country. It will provide the cross-jurisdictional information sharing that we so badly need.

A pilot to establish this national criminal intelligence system (NCIS) was successfully completed in June this year within the Australian Criminal Intelligence Commission. It delivered a proof-of-concept national search capability.

There should now be a full roll-out of the NCIS. By providing a reliable platform for collaboration
 of criminal and national security threats via a secure information sharing environment, this capability would allow those on the frontline to have the best national intelligence available.

The need for greater coordination and information sharing, particularly in response to terrorist events, has been underlined with the creation of a Home Affairs portfolio. A national criminal intelligence system would complement Vision 2020: A National Security Information Environment Roadmap, as well as initiatives such as the review of Australia’s visa system and the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet’s Data Availability and Use Taskforce (that will respond to the Productivity Commission’s report on this issue).

It also supports efforts by the Department of Immigration and Border Protection to prioritise people and items for border scrutiny by investing in cutting-edge machine learning and big-data analytics. At the state level, the NCIS would need to engage with new intelligence capabilities, such as Victoria Police’s BlueConnect Program.

Access to the national repository of Australia’s criminal information, police records and intelligence-led threat assessments would help keep us safe and, at an estimated cost of $150 million, wouldn’t cost that much more than the postal survey on same-sex marriage.

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