Tax Office seeks access to real-time telco data

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Tax Office seeks access to real-time telco data

Backs controversial data retention scheme.

The Australian Taxation Office (ATO) has called for the nation's phone tapping laws to be changed so that its investigators might intercept telecommunications data in real time.

Under Australia's Telecommunications (Interception and Access) Act 1979 (TIA Act), the ATO is able to access "stored communications" such as voice mail, email and SMS messages.

"A major limitation with our current powers under the TIA Act is our inability to access prospective or real time telecommunications information," it submitted to the Joint Parliamentary Committee on Intelligence and Security this week (pdf).

"Access to real time telecommunications data would enable our investigators to quickly identify those involved in suspected fraud, establish an association between two or more people, prove that two or more people have communicated at a particular time and by what means, or show that a person was at a location at a particular time.

"Without such access, our investigators will continue to be limited to accessing historical information and hampered in their ability to respond rapidly."

The ATO's call for real-time access was one of three proposals it made to the committee's inquiry into potential reforms of national security legislation.

A second proposal would see the TIA Act amended to allow the ATO to reuse any data intercepted by the Australian Crime Commission (ACC) and Australian Federal Police (AFP) to "remove the profit from serious criminal activity", especially where police did not have enough evidence for criminal prosecution.

The ATO also called for communications data to be stored for up to two years, in accordance with the European Union Data Retention Directive.

The Federal Government has considered forcing telcos to store web traffic and subscriber data since about 2010, under a scheme that has been opposed by privacy groups and the Australian Greens.

The Senate passed a 'lite' set of legislative reforms on Wednesday, allowing law enforcement agencies to force ISPs to store data on subscribers while a warrant was sought.

"The availability of this data can be crucial to the effectiveness of investigations, and a minimum retention period would ensure the availability of this data for a set period of time," the ATO said of the wider data retention scheme.

"The ATO supports a minimum data retention period of at least two years."

Improving data matching powers

The Tax Office made a wider range of proposals to increase the scope of its partnership with the Crime Commission and AFP in a separate submission to the Parliamentary Joint Committee on Law Enforcement this week (pdf).

The committee's inquiry into the gathering and use of criminal intelligence, established on May 30 to investigate Crime Commission and AFP capabilities.

The ATO sought to use its broad data holdings and data matching capabilities "to identify unexplained wealth from illegal profits and to identify priority targets from a financial wealth perspective".

In a speech in March this year, Commissioner of Taxation Michael D'Ascenzo explained that the connection between criminals and their finances made them "especially vulnerable to revenue collection agencies, because of the ability to identify the discrepancy between their wealthy lifestyle and modest tax declarations".

The ATO asserted that effective information sharing between government agencies would be achieved by “removing impediments” such as secrecy provisions restricting disclosure about criminals and their activities.

It also wanted to ensure that government agency technology systems were compatible with each other, for information sharing purposes.

The ATO highlighted Project Wickenby, for which it has worked with departments and agencies including ASIC, ACC, AFP, Attorney-General, Director of Public Prosecutions and Australian Government Solicitor since 2006.

The data mining project was recognised by the Australian National Audit Office “as a template for cross-agency co-operation” in February this year.

It led to 65 people being charged with offences, of whom 22 were convicted. It also saw 298 audits and reviews conducted and a total of $1.26 billion in tax liabilities raised. A total of $287 million was collected in tax, and $105 million worth of assets were restrained.

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