Australian Taxation Office calls for greater data surveillance powers

Submission to Parliamentary Joint Committee includes request for access to real-time data as part of tax evasion investigations

The Australian Taxation Office (ATO) has requested greater data surveillance powers, including phone tapping, in order to catch fraudsters, according to a submission to the Parliamentary Joint Committee on Law Enforcement Inquiry into criminal intelligence gathering.

In its submission (PDF), the ATO outlined areas of legislative reform which, if passed, would allow it to go after organised criminals who “operate outside the tax system”.

One area of reform would involve an amendment of the Telecommunications (Interception and Access) Act 1979 (TIA) to allow the ATO to use information gained by law enforcement agencies such as the Australian Crime Commission (ACC) and Australian Federal Police (AFP) through telecommunications interception, or phone tapping, during joint investigations.

“Law enforcement agencies advise us that some of the information held by them could be of particular benefit in combating serious and organised crime where the ACC or AFP does not have the requisite evidence to refer the matter for criminal prosecution, but where the ATO can still play an important role in removing the profit from the criminal activity by raising [tax] assessments or other taxation remedies,” read the submission.

In addition, the ATO is requesting access to real-time content if the TIA Act is reformed. According to the submission, the agency is facing difficulty in combating identity crime and repeated attacks on electronic lodgement and processing systems by cyber criminals.

“Currently the ATO is only able to access historical telecommunications information under the TIA,” read the submission.

According to the ATO, in cases where suspects are identified as attempting to defraud Australia (the Commonwealth) by way of refund or credit fraud on the tax system, delays of multiple days in accessing historical information could be “the difference between apprehending the offender or not”.

The submission went on to say that the Australian Customs and Border Protection Service is the only agency currently able to access real-time data under the TIA.

“The ATO proposes that consideration be given to enabling the ATO’s investigators access to real-time telecommunications content to allow a more appropriate response to the ongoing threats to Australia’s tax and superannuation systems.”

The Submission follows the passing in the Senate of the Cybercrime Legislation Amendment Bill 2011 which is set to give Australian law enforcement agencies greater powers to track cyber criminals and pave the way for Australia to join the Council of Europe Convention on Cybercrime.

According to Greens Senator Scott Ludlam, the Bill would open the door to Australian’s private data being shared with agencies overseas.

"This proposed law goes well beyond the already controversial European convention on which it is based, and no explanation has been provided as to why,” he said this week.

“The European Convention doesn't require ongoing collection and retention of communications, but the Australian Bill does. It also leaves the door open for Australia to assist in prosecutions which could lead to the death penalty overseas.”

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