Friday, 7 November 2014

How and why Australian Customs shares information

Isobel O'Brien

Have you ever wondered whether your identity is being tracked when you go through Customs at an airport?  There is no doubt that your personal information from your passport is recorded.  Even your ‘biometric identifiers’, like fingerprints, are collected.  But how much do you know about how your personal details are stored and shared by Customs beyond your control? 

Data sharing for national security purposes

The Australian Customs and Border Protection Service (‘Customs’) collaborates with governmental agencies, both nationally and internationally, by sharing the information it collects to “detect and deter unlawful movement of goods and people across the border.”

At the national level, such cross-agency data sharing unifies resources and centralises national security efforts, which enables greater accuracy in identifying potential security threats.  Analysis of information from multiple sources, including Customs, allows analysts to track peoples’ behavioural patterns and communications, as well as facilitating the identification of non-intuitive relationships between groups and individuals.  Identification of such trends aids in anticipating potential attacks, foreign interference and organised crime.

National agencies currently participating in information sharing agreements with Customs include the Australian Federal Police, Department of Immigration and Border Protection, Department of Defence, Australian Security Intelligence Organisation, Australian Security Intelligence Service, Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, and the Department of Agriculture, Fisheries and Forestry.

Cooperative data agreements 

Australian Customs has data sharing partnership with the AFP, the New South Wales, Victorian and Tasmanian police, Australian Transaction and Reports and Analysis Centre (AUSTRAC) and the Australian Crime Commission, with a focus on preventing drug importation.  Customs often works particularly closely with the AFP and has developed a Joint Organised Crime Group (JOCG).  ‘Operation Inca’ is a specific example of such a partnership in 2007.  This operation targeted importations of the drug MDMA and led to the dismantling of a purported international drug ring, with 30 charges laid in Australia alone.  The partnership between Customs and law enforcement agencies at the state, national and international level enabled the sharing of information about the smuggling of cocaine in shipping containers, which had been gathered from surveillance data in ten different countries.  This led to the identification and arrest of the criminal ‘masterminds’ of the drug ring, as well as the smaller players. 

Customs also has a role in maritime security, protecting sovereign territories and preventing illegal activities in the Southern Ocean.  A current operation is the targeting of ‘illegal, unregulated and unreported fishing’, which widely affects ‘domestic, regional and international stakeholders’.  Illegal fishing is disrupted using measures such as the RP0A-IUU network, by which fishing vessels engaging in illegal activity are barred from accessing regional ports.  This network involves sharing of information with partner agencies, including the Department of Defence, law enforcement agencies and the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade who work closely on collaborative initiatives combating border threats and illegal maritime activities. 

Biometrical and biographical data, immigration status and travel history will soon be shared and stored in the chips in e-passports in Australia.  At international airports and seaports, Australian Customs is already able to collect passengers’ biometric information.  This data may include fingerprints, facial recognition imaging or iris scans, and is stored in the Automated Biometric Identification System database.  Prospective laws foreshadowed in the ‘Foreign Fighters’ bill indicate that Customs would not only be able to store such information for its own purposes, but also share it with an international database of biometric information for unspecified national security purposes.  The biometric data collected at borders will be passed to the AFP and national security agencies to pre-emptively assess passengers’ risk status prior to their arrival in Australia, by matching passengers’ data to international databases.  Funding is currently being directed to developing secure international databases with partner countries to target identity fraud. 

International examples of large scale data exchange illustrate the potential for future expansion of Australian Customs’ data sharing capabilities, such as through direct connections with integrated global databases.  In the United States, biometrics databases hold millions of entries as part of the US-VISIT program and store the information of every international traveller within the US and those seeking to work, study or live in the country.  Such biometric databases are shared with over 77 foreign governments, including Australia, through collaborative data agreements.  The US also collects biometric data with private bodies, such as Facebook, for national security purposes.  Facebook’s data is mined for its vast collection of uploaded photographs and the site’s facial recognition software, which identifies individuals by matching faces to ‘tagged’ photographs.  This data enables significant accuracy in identification of individuals, as accounts are frequently linked to users’ real names.  The US further demonstrates the capacity for efficient data sharing between state and federal government bodies.  In response to the terrorist attacks in 2001, the federal US government reformed its predominantly siloed storage structure of biometric data to facilitate sharing between agencies through interoperable databases. 

Further issues regarding information sharing

The collection and sharing of information by agencies such as Customs poses many further issues for potential investigation.  It is useful to situate Customs’ data sharing activity within the broader context of resource and statutory limitations, which reduce efficiency and raise privacy concerns.  Lack of adequate funding and training can pose processing difficulties to individual agencies, which may lack the capacity to manage the sheer size and variety of information collected.  Further, when data is stored in multiple different ‘siloed’ systems, efficient data sharing is impeded by lack of interoperability and consistency between agencies.  Inadequate legislative privacy protections in Australia should also be flagged as an area of concern regarding the greater capacity of Customs and other agencies to share individuals’ private information.  Already, the small protections that do exist controlling information collection, such as the bar on the federal government from matching data in their possession to peoples’ tax file numbers, is being circumvented, as much of the information obtained by Australian governmental bodies is purchased from private organisations.  Such issues leave extensive scope for further investigation into the area of data sharing.

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