Justice Minister uneasy over crime data proposal

A contentious proposal for the federal government to forcefully extract information from criminal databases has achieved the rare feat of uniting privacy advocates and the Minister for Justice and Customs, Senator Chris Ellison in their distaste for the concept.

Two Liberal party backbenchers, federal member for Flinders, Greg Hunt and the member for La Trobe, ex-Victorian police counter-terrorism coordination unit Senior Sergeant Jason Wood told the ABC this week they both want to see state police data automatically fed into a federal database for counter-terrorism measures.

Currently, the CrimTrac database is used as a national and cross-jurisdictional criminal information registry and also acts as a clearing house for enquiries relating to criminal history, forensic evidence and child sex offenders.

Police forces upload criminal information, such as convictions or fingerprints, into the system by agreement rather than compulsion.

However, the two backbenchers want a federal database which can delve into state databases to do a spot of predictive modelling.

One example nominated by the duo involves data matching "seemingly irrelevant information" to illuminate links or patterns in behaviour which cross state borders and those of criminal and civilian lifestyles.

"Looking at linked patterns of behaviour is the key, because potential acts of terrorism are now done through leveraging the ordinary parts of day-to-day life, of flight training, of ammonium nitrate, other activities such as that," Hunt said. "If we focus on individual behaviour, we don't need to go down the path of racial profiling or stereotyping."

Wood said the type of information a federal system would capture would help authorities identify persons in the initial stages of planning a terrorist attack - for instance by being able to cross-match suspects without criminal records, or cleanskins, who hold explosives licences.

Minister for Justice and Customs Senator Chris Ellison is not buying into the argument, with a spokesman trying to defuse any state-federal bunfight. "A lot of proposals are raised. Good ones are considered. The best are adopted," Ellison's spokesman said.

Privacy advocates are not being so kind, saying that who would have access to such database is a bigger concern than creating one.

Vice chair of the Australian Privacy Foundation and executive director of the UNSW Cyberspace Law and Policy Centre, David Vaile, said linking databases with personal information to reasonably identify a person is the core of any privacy concern.

He added that the growing capabilities of data mining and analytics is causing agencies to consider more possibilities, leading to growing ambitions for unfettered access to data - ambitions privacy laws are designed to regulate.

"I cannot think of anything more intrusive; a data matching approach needs an open ended, unmonitored data matching program," Vaile said.

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