House debates

Monday, 18 June 2007

Grievance Debate

Passport Security

4:50 pm

Photo of Anthony ByrneAnthony Byrne (Holt, Australian Labor Party, Shadow Parliamentary Secretary for Foreign Affairs) Share this | | Hansard source

Tonight I rise to talk about a very important issue. I heard the issue of security mentioned earlier, so I thought that I would mention a security issue too: the issue of passport security. The security of passports raises issues across many different policy areas: national security, identify fraud, financial services and border security. There are over a million Australian passports issued every year. These passports are used as proof of citizenship when travelling overseas and also as a primary source of identification when opening bank accounts and replacing lost personal identity documents such as birth certificates. Passports are a key form of identification, counting for 70 points out of the required 100 for proof of identification in financial institutions. But there is a concern about missing passports in this country. Between 1997 and 2006 there was an increase of more than 65 per cent in the number of passports reported as missing or stolen.

Photo of Jennie GeorgeJennie George (Throsby, Australian Labor Party, Shadow Parliamentary Secretary for Environment and Heritage) Share this | | Hansard source

That much?

Photo of Anthony ByrneAnthony Byrne (Holt, Australian Labor Party, Shadow Parliamentary Secretary for Foreign Affairs) Share this | | Hansard source

This is the government that prides itself on national security, member for Throsby. This is compared to a rise of only 24.32 per cent between 1997-98 and 2005-06 in the number of passports issued. This is a significant discrepancy between the number of passports listed as missing and stolen and the number of passports issued. Comparatively, the percentage rise in the numbers of passports listed as missing or stolen is over 2½ times the percentage rise in the number of Australian passports that have been issued.

During its time in office, the Howard government has repeatedly shown its careless and neglectful attitude, which has manifested itself in areas like passport security. The missing-in-the-mail fiasco, caused by the Howard government’s decision when it first came to office to cease sending passports out by registered mail, is but one example. In an attempt to cut costs, Mr Downer made the decision to reverse the practice of sending out passports by registered mail. His flawed judgement was that registered post was an unnecessary cost and that it would be perfectly safe to send these valuable identity documents out by normal mail. This cost-saving measure in the face of national security concerns was a farce, and questions put to the minister by the now Leader of the Opposition back in 1999 showed at that stage that there were already 988 Australian passports missing in the mail. It took nearly three years, until July 2002, for the Howard government to reintroduce measures ensuring Australian passports were distributed again via registered post.

In a somewhat belated response to the growing tide of missing passports in general, the Howard government introduced measures in the Australian Passports Act 2005 that were supported by the opposition and were aimed at curbing this tide. Whilst the reduction in the overall number of lost passports has occurred as expected, it is not as significant as it should be. Projections by the Minister for Foreign Affairs show that revenue from the measures introduced to curb numbers of lost and stolen passports is set to rise. Why would that be? The introduced measures involved an additional fee when replacing a passport—$64 if one travel document has been reported lost or stolen, $193 if two travel documents have been reported lost or stolen and $386 if three or more travel documents have been reported lost or stolen. If the government expects these measures to work, surely the revenue collected for lost or missing passports should be projected to decrease. Instead, figures provided by the minister’s office as answers to questions on notice show that revenue raised from lost and stolen passports is going to rise.

On first glance that might not seem strange. The number of passports issued is estimated to rise, albeit slightly, so why should the revenue for lost or stolen passports not rise? It should not for one very important reason. The measures were designed and implemented to reduce the number of passports listed as missing or stolen; therefore, ultimately, the revenue from them should decrease over time. Obviously, you are never going to get to the point in this country where 100 per cent of passports are kept safe and are never lost or stolen, but to introduce a measure that is designed to curb this problem and then predict it will fail—and that is what these projections say—seems extraordinary. The projections are for a revenue of $1.55 million from lost and stolen passport fees in 2006-07, climbing to $1.84 million in 2010-11. Even taking into account indexation, it seems astonishing that this figure is not going down.

In the Canadian example, the 2004-05 annual report for Passport Canada indicated that over 2.7 million Canadian passports were issued in that financial year. The report also indicated that 25,000 Canadian passports were reported missing or stolen, an interesting situation when you consider that in the same year Australia issued fewer than half the number of passports as Canada, yet we had 37,616 passports reported missing or stolen—that is 12,616 more passports missing and stolen in Australia than in Canada. In percentage terms 2.98 per cent of passports issued in Australia were reported missing or stolen compared to 0.93 per cent in Canada for the financial year 2004-05. Why would that be? The implications are that missing passports relate to identity fraud, a favourite tool of terrorists. Nations around the world, including Australia, are implementing enhanced passports containing biometrics and other security measures. The introduction of these features will help to reduce the amount of travel on false passports.

Criminals, however, as it often seems, are very adroit at keeping up with sophisticated technologies. This is nowhere more apparent than on the issue of identity fraud. Reporting is varied, but, financially, identity fraud costs the country somewhere between $1 billion and $6 billion every year. It also has, as I have said before, serious implications for national security. The capacity to build fake identities is available, and reports show that many criminals are using it. A 2003 news article entitled ‘Passport to fraud’ highlighted a number of instances of identity fraud and the increasing problem it is creating for our society. The Australian Federal Police raided a Sydney house and found a number of complete identity packages, including birth certificates, tax office group certificates, Australia Post forms and templates for bank statements and council rate notices—all legal proof of identity documents. It has also discussed the availability of fake identification on websites, including foreign passports which are recognised under Australian laws as official proof of identity documents. A rudimentary search of some of these sites shows that they are still operating by hiding behind disclaimers and novelty tags. Recent newspaper reports into identity theft have described it as ‘more than simply stealing a credit card or details, and can lead to scammers applying for cards in another person’s name’. ACCC deputy chair Louise Sylvan was recently quoted as saying:

Scams are not just sent to people to extract money. In many cases, they are sent with the intention of collecting enough information to steal your identity.

In March this year in an article entitled ‘Data is heroin to criminals’ Australian Federal Police Commissioner Mick Keelty revealed that the AFP had recently dismantled an Indian identity crime syndicate operating in Melbourne and Sydney. This issue is so concerning that the AFP is reportedly planning to open an office in India later this year to help fight identity theft. Mr Keelty is further quoted as saying:

That data that sits on your database is as good as a kilo of heroin ... it is as good as any other commodity for an organised crime group and that’s the way you have to look at it.

Identity fraud is generally discovered when the person whose identity has been stolen realises it through financial transactions made in their name. Identity fraud by terrorist organisations is unlikely to be uncovered rapidly as there is no trigger, such as emptying of bank accounts, to alert authorities or the real holder of the identity that their identity has been stolen. That has profound ramifications. A false, fake or doctored passport is an important step in the identity fraud chain. A current passport as a primary document is worth 70 points in the hundred point prescribed verification procedure. A fake passport coupled with, for example, a forged letter from an employer can be used to reach 100 points. With 100 points bank accounts can be opened, further establishing the fake identity and increasing the available forms of ID. Current Australian passports are reportedly worth between $10,000 and $20,000 on the black market. Older style passports that will still be valid for some time are likely to become more valuable, as tampering is less likely to be identified. According to AUSTRAC, the organisation that oversees compliance with the requirements of the Financial Transaction Reports Act, passports used to open a new account are not checked against a list of passports that have been reported as missing or stolen.

A 2004 report in the Canberra Times described passports as possibly:

... al-Qaeda’s most powerful weapons. Stolen and legitimate, doctored and untouched, they have enabled Osama bin Laden’s network and other terror groups to plan and carry out attacks world-wide.

Yet here in Australia the government appears to be unconcerned that we are losing more than 30,000 of these powerful weapons every year. With APEC coming up in September and with the associated enormous number of restrictions on people’s liberty in the name of national security, one would think that the government would have a responsibility to address this issue. Given the fact that they have not and the fact that we have got 30,000 missing passports that could be used by terrorists, it is an absolute disgrace. (Time expired)