Phone tapping being used to enforce fines

Phoen TappingPhone data access being used to enforce fines

Police and crime agencies tapped people’s phones and electronic equipment at the rate of about 10 a day last year – 3488 warrants were issued – while nearly 600 surveillance devices (10 a week) went into operation around Australia. Surveillance is on the rise, and privileged access to phone data is also increasingly being used for mundane activities such as collecting council fines and enforcing the dog act, via RSPCAs.

Phone data access being used to enforce fines

There were 3488 applications for telecommunications interception warrants  – ‘phone taps’ in simpler language – last year, roughly the same as in previous years.

In the same 2010-11 period, original applications for named person warrants totalled 628 and there was a total of 111 B-party warrants (intercepting the ‘called-party’, rather than the caller).

But these innocent-sounding figures hide more than they reveal: when you factor in the “expanded” reach of these intercepts, as well as access to privileged phone records – how they can be shared with a wide range of federal, state and local government agencies  – the impact of the phone, email, SMS and computer tapping and sharing extends out to more than 250,000 instances (see ‘Sharing’ below).

For example, access to phone records is now being used even by a local government council to chase up unpaid fines, the annual Telecommunications Interception Act report to parliament says. The government tabled the report on Melbourne Cup day, 1 November, a sure sign that it hides some statistics the government does not want highlighted.

Most intercept warrants over the past year were for ‘serious’ drug offences (1222). There were 491 for murder, 104 for Terrorism, 11 for people smuggling or sexual servitude and 3 for child pornography.

The preponderance of drug offences indicates how much police time the ‘war on drugs’ takes: as CLA (and many others) have been saying for years, it is time to re-think society’s approach to drugs partly just to free up police officers to do criminal rather than health work.

Basically, each intercept operates for about two months, on average. B party intercepts usually last about a month.  However, the trend is upwards, and 90-day, 150-day and particularly 180-day renewals – which have virtually doubled – are on the increase.

Police and the criminal agencies (crimcos) – like crime commissions and offices of ‘integrity’ – claim to have made 2441 arrests on the intercepts over the past year. Of these, 1531 were for “serious” drug offences. Of those, NSW Police made 475 arrests and WA Police 458, even though NSW has about 7.3m people and WA just 2.3m.  Either WA is Australia’s most ‘dopey’ state, or the WA Police are fixated on drug offences.

Convictions based on the intercepts* were rarer, totalling 2034. Of these, 1046 were for “serious” drug offences. In terms of convictions, NSW Police achieved 365, WA Police 169 and Victoria Police 304 (on just 318 intercepts in Victoria – seems the Victorians are much more efficient).

The combined Australia police and crimcos spent $50.5m on telecommunications interception in the past year, up 9% on the year before.

It is fascinating to look at the ‘per-intercept’** cost: for NSW Police, the average is $4166, while for WA, Victoria and the NT Police it is about $18,000 each time. Last year, it cost the CCC – WA’s Corruption and Crime Commission – $88,675 on average for each intercept, which was more than double the cost of each intercept for the same agency in the previous year.

There were 298 intercepts of “stored communications”. These relate to ISPs and phone companies providing access to emails and SMS messages in the main. By far the heaviest user is the NSW Police, who accounted for 89. Strangely, the Tasmanian Police had the very high figure of 44.

And even more strangely, all agencies reported only 33 conviction made as a result of stored communications warrants. NSW achieved only 2 convictions, and Tasmania 11.  As usual, the report cautions that intercepts in one year may lead to convictions in another, hence the figures may be skewed.


State and federal police and crimcos can share the information they get from intercepts with a wide range of like bodies. As well, there is another set of “sharing” which involves exclusive, privileged access to phone company data by sometimes abstruse organisations.

Last year, the number of authorisations made for access to existing information or documents “in the enforcement of the criminal law” was 243,631. Those who able to share the phone information included the RSPCA in Queensland and Victoria, the Victorian Taxi Directorate, Australian Fisheries Management Authority, the Australian Tax Office, Corrective Services in NSW and Victoria, Defence, Immigration, the Insolvency and Trustee Service of Australia, and the Office of Environment and Heritage in NSW.

Generally, phone information sharing increases each year (but there are exceptions). For example, the NT Police went from a figure of 807 in 08/09 to 3695 in 10/11, and the Office of Police Integrity in Victoria from 873 to 5246 over the same time frame.

But something interesting is happening in NSW: the NSW Police went from figures of 110,000 and 115,000 in the two previous years down to just 41,340 last year. In the same periods, the NSW Crime Commission went from 4600 to 3600 and then to 2900.

Under another category – basically chasing up fines and penalties – another raft of agencies can use access to phone data, including ACT Revenue, Australia Post, Centrelink, Medicare, Fair Trading and the Health Care Complaints Commission in NSW, Revenue SA , State Revenue Office Victoria, Territory Revenue Officer (NT), the Victorian Taxi Directorate and many other bodies.

In the reporting period, Wyndham City Council (basically, around Werribee in Victoria) and the Office of Liquor, Gaming and Racing (NSW) were added to the approved “enforcement agencies” who could share phone information.  Expect a rash of local government and other arcane bodies to join the scheme in coming years.

All up, there were 8000 authorisations made last year for these fine bodies to use privileged phone information, up about 15% on the previous year.

* Strictly, “in which lawfully intercepted information (was) given in evidence”
** Strictly, “per intercept warrant” cost.


The Surveillance Devices Act report was also tabled on 1 November. It shows that judicial officers – mostly tribunal members or magistrates – approved 588 warrants last year, a 12% increase on the previous year. Within that total, the AFP reported a 29% increase in obtaining surveillance device warrants, up to 406 warrants from 311 the previous year.

There were 134 requests for approved surveillance/tracking to be extended: none was refused.

The AFP and the Australian Crime Commission received approval to use tracking devices on 71 occasions during the years.  Somewhere out there, 209 tracking devices are still floating around…not one of those authorised has been safely recovered over the past three years, according to the report.

For all the tracking devices used, the conviction rate is poor: 21 convictions in 08/09, 24 in 09/10 and just 15 in 10/11 (with the usual proviso that some convictions could occur in following years).


Note: This item was updated on 10 Nov 2011 to correct the impression that bodies like the Victorian Taxi Directorate use phone tap data: they have privileged access to phone company data and phone records, but not intercept material.

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