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Parliamentary Joint Committee on Law Enforcement
Gathering and use of criminal intelligence

VISSER, Mr Johann, General Manager, Intelligence, Australian Transaction Reports and Analysis Centre


CHAIR: We will continue to take evidence in the form of a subcommittee. We have received your submission as No. 14. I now invite you to make an opening statement, followed by questions.

Mr Visser : I just want to clarify one point that was raised in a submission by Patrick Walsh, from Charles Sturt University. In that submission it is stated that AUSTRAC is a member of the ACC board. AUSTRAC is not a member of the ACC board. I just want to make that point clear.

CHAIR: Do you want to say anything else?

Senator PARRY: Do you think AUSTRAC should be a member of the ACC board?

Mr Visser : That is a matter for the government, but we certainly would not object.

Senator PARRY: So you could see some value adding to the board?

Mr Visser : Yes.

Senator PARRY: In relation to AUSTRAC and intelligence holdings—I think Mr Hayes was with me; we have been through the AUSTRAC process and we understand the work that is done there—do you see your intelligence holdings and the sharing of those holdings as being completely discrete? I know there are some very strict regimes under which you operate to share that information but, more and more, the financial aspect of criminal activity is becoming quite significant as to working out what money is moving where, by whom and how and what amounts et cetera. Where do see yourselves fitting into the general discussion in relation to the holdings you have and the sharing of the holdings, and maybe more extensive sharing?

Mr Visser : Probably the first point to make is that what we collect is financial information. Until there has been some exercise of analysis, it does not become intelligence. We call it financial intelligence. We have around 40 agencies that are designated under the act that may access the information. By and large, they have online access to the information, so if they have an inquiry they can do their own searches of the database.

Senator PARRY: That is remote, without seeking permission? They have already been granted the permission in advance and that information is then accessed?

Mr Visser : That is correct. Under the act the CEO can authorise, under section 126, persons or groups of persons within an agency, a designated agency, to have access to the information and the classes of access that they can have information on. That is how we organise ourselves in providing that access through the online inquiry system that we provide.

Senator PARRY: Can you track and do you track who accesses the information?

Mr Visser : Every search is logged. We have very detailed records of every search and every activity that is undertaken on the database.

Senator PARRY: I am probably now shortening my opening question, but do you think that the information that is shared now by your agency is at its optimum level—that there is no need to really have any increased sharing because of the strict controls and those agencies that need to access it can access it?

Mr Visser : We are constantly engaging with our partner agencies on how to improve the use of the information. As I said, those agencies that are designated have access to the information, so they can do whatever inquiries they wish. Whether there are other ways, given technology and so forth, of utilising the information, we are currently in the process of modernising and enhancing our analytical systems. We are midway through that. Again, we are using modern technologies to increase the efficiency with which we and our partner agencies will use the information. There is always room to improve how that information is accessed and how it is applied, but, as I said, we are midway through a process to implement systems that will make the access of that information perhaps more fruitful going forward.

Senator PARRY: Do you provide both value added or intelligence added information as well is the raw data?

Mr Visser : Yes. The CEO has the responsibility to analyse the information. We have several processes in place to analyse the data. There are over 200 million transactions on the database at the moment, so we need to use quite sophisticated tools to monitor the data as it comes through. We try to keep on top of patterns of activity that might require us to do some more detailed analysis that may lead to an intelligence product that we would refer to a partner agency. We also use quite sophisticated data mining tools to look at the data in a top-down approach to identify aggregated movements in data that might warrant drilling down into the data to seek explanations for that, and that may also end up as an intelligence product that we refer to partner agencies. We are constantly being sought out by our partner agencies to do specific analysis on specific activities to assist them with their task force or particular large-scale investigations.

Senator PARRY: That is what I am getting at—the way you share that information. So, firstly, you generate your own internal intelligence package that you may then self-initiate to an agency that would have interest in that, through your data mining and looking at trends and patterns—and I have seen how that works; it is quite sophisticated—secondly, you have partner agencies asking you to prepare an intelligence package, and, thirdly, they just come in and get the exact data they need for probably more an evidentiary aspect rather than an intelligence-led aspect. They are the three types that I have crudely put together. Is that right?

Mr Visser : Pretty much. We view the data as intelligence rather than evidence, so it is really a window into the financial system and financial transactions.

Senator PARRY: And then you get the actual record from the financial institution.

Mr Visser : Correct.

Senator PARRY: But you then know what evidence you can go and physically pick up or collect.

Mr Visser : Yes.

Senator PARRY: What is the frequency of use from the 40 partner agencies? Is the major frequency seeking exact data and then sourcing the original material; intelligence packages that they may wish to have you develop for them; or is it self-initiated that you have put out to the agency? Can you break that down in any rough, statistical form?

Mr Visser : Not here today, but there is place for all of them, if I could put it that way.

Senator PARRY: Is there one more predominant than the other two?

Mr Visser : Clearly, online access to the partner agencies is quite substantial use of the database. We publish that every year in our annual report, so the statistics are available. We disseminate around 1400 value-added intelligence products annually. I could not give you a specific breakdown on it, but there is a place for all of those things because we have such a complicated partner agency framework. We deal with law enforcement, national security, revenue and a bunch of other agencies.

Senator PARRY: Who is your primary customer, if I can use that term: the ACC followed by AFP?

Mr Visser : Probably the tax office is the primary user of the data. They have the largest number of users. Not everyone on our database has got criminal histories, but most people will have some tax obligation. Tax is probably the predominant user followed by perhaps Customs and then the law enforcement agencies respectively.

Senator PARRY: In relation to the agencies, can you monitor whether, for example, tax, AFP, Customs and ACC all ask about the same things at the same time or within a short-time frame?

Mr Visser : Theoretically, we could; we do not.

Senator PARRY: Why not?

Mr Visser : Because of that sovereignty issue when persons perhaps desire to work within a model. There might be a sensitive investigation. The information is there. We log all of those—

Senator PARRY: Can the CEO or someone in the agency authorised by the CEO advise the other agencies saying, 'I just want to advise you there is more than one agency looking at this' without naming the agency?

Mr Visser : We often play that role around a suspect matter reporting component, so there is an obligation in our agreements with each of those agencies that, if they access a suspect matter report, that they contact the other agencies that have previously been given that report so that there is an element of coordination outside. But that is primarily around just the suspect matter reports that we collect.

Senator PARRY: My final question: do you allow agencies to roam without any specific target of inquiry? Can agencies just come and say, 'I want to check on this person, this person and that person'? Do they need to have a specific reason or rationale to access the information that you have?

Mr Visser : They do and it is governed by the legislation. They must use it for official purposes.

Senator PARRY: It could be an official purpose but it could be someone roaming: 'I'm looking for—

Mr Visser : Fishing, do you mean?

Senator PARRY: Yes. It might even be a set amount of money that has been transferred from one bank to another bank or to an overseas bank. They might search the size of the amount rather than a person. They may have a variety of people they think may have moved some money.

Mr Visser : There are aggregated search parameters that they can use, so they could say that they wanted to look for all money movements between a particular suburb and a particular country, for example. So there are parameters that can be exercised to do that high-level of search, and they would need a good reason to do that. One thing that we have recently implemented is that we have put in a reason for search into the system so that—

Senator PARRY: Good.

Mr Visser : every time they do an inquiry, they have the ability to note for their own backtracking a case reference number or whatever it may be that will jolt their memory so that when the auditors ask them a question—why did you do that search?—they can come back and explain why.

We provide those audit trail records back to the partner agencies for them to scrutinise and look into further if required.

Senator NASH: How do you see the interoperability between the agencies working at the moment? And are there any challenges that you can see impeding it from working better?

Mr Visser : I can only answer from our perspective. We provide it out to those agencies that are entitled to access it. We have not had a lot of negative comment about the way we provide that information to them, and we get very positive feedback in terms of the use they make of the information. So purely from our perspective in getting the information out, other than the enhancements we are going through at the moment to make that a better experience and a more fruitful experience, I do not see a lot of issues with us channelling our information out.

Senator NASH: And in terms of the potential move towards a more national approach, if you like—the criminal intelligence sharing—do you have a view on whether that would improve the ability to do that?

Mr Visser : Clearly there is a need to join the dots. Regarding how that is achieved and what the best mechanisms are, I listened carefully to the previous evidence, and a lot of good points were made in that evidence. It is not an area I have expertise in, so I would not want to delve too far into it. But from our perspective, in terms of getting our information out, I think we have a reasonably good framework at the moment.

Senator NASH: How do you oversight your effectiveness and measure the success of how you do your work and that delivery of the information?

Mr Visser : I guess we have a vicarious existence, because we provide market information that we expect the agencies with which we deal to take up and run with. The things we publish in our annual report are things like the additional revenue—which I referred to in our submission—that the tax office may not otherwise have raised if it had not been for us providing them with information. We look at the significant investigations that we contribute to in working in partnership with those agencies and document them. One of the important factors on the other side of the circle, or the movement of information, is that we need to get it back to the banking sector and so forth and to reporting entities that provide that information. We need to constantly keep a tab on what is happening out there on the database—what criminals are doing that is different to what they were doing last year. So we publish every year typologies information on what we see happening, what cases have emerged in the last 12 months that might be new or might be the same old thing happening again, just to keep the industry that reports to us up to date on what it is they should be looking for in their day-to-day business with the customers, who may be criminals.

Senator NASH: You mentioned feedback, and I think you said it was overwhelmingly positive—although I do not want to put words in your mouth! Is that an informal process, or a formal process?

Mr Visser : We actually have things written in the memorandum of understanding requiring feedback to be provided by those agencies. It is an area that challenges us constantly, because as soon as one operation is over they are on to the next one, so the time it takes to fill in the feedback that we require is an addition to the work of the agency.

Senator NASH: It is a bit cumbersome?

Mr Visser : It is difficult. We are on their back all the time. We do a number of things. We collect it as best we can. We have people outposted in some of those agencies as well. Where we are aware of a major operation we will actually go and interview them and document it, just so we have that contemporary information as it happens. So we put a little bit of effort in and they put a bit of effort in and we do the best we can, but it is never going to be optimal.

CHAIR: In 2010 AUSTRAC initiated a project to enhance intelligence capabilities. Perhaps you could give us a brief outline of what occurred.

Mr Visser : So far we have purchased and are implementing all of the underlying infrastructure, so the servers, the processing capability and so forth, and that is largely in response to the growth in the number of reports that we are receiving. So we have got the infrastructure in place—the IT infrastructure. That is around identity management and sharing of data across the systems. We have purchased a number of software tools which are now being slowly implemented over the next two years, and those tools will be tailored to extract and analyse the information more effectively than the systems that we currently have. So there will be a lot more intuitive tools available for analysts who will be able to make decisions more quickly and identify higher risks more efficiently.

CHAIR: And the analysed reports then will be circulated to specified partner organisations.

Mr Visser : Correct.

CHAIR: What is the relationship in relation to international exchange of financial information and intelligence with the AFP and also with the Australian Crime Commission?

Mr Visser : Both of those agencies have the ability to exchange our information with their international counterparts and we also have something like 64 agreements in place with other countries with which we can exchange information both ways. I do not have the statistics in front of me at the moment, but that is a mechanism that we regularly use. The Australian Crime Commission may want some information from a jurisdiction, a similar financial intelligence unit that exists in another country. They will come to us and we will make the request for that intelligence—

CHAIR: AUSTRAC does not have to know the countries or other agencies that the AFP or the Crime Commission will release the information to? If you release the information to the AFP or the Crime Commission is it their responsibility then with where they transmit the data to?

Mr Visser : It is, but they are, I believe, required to keep a record of who the information has gone to.

CHAIR: And you would maintain that audit process?

Mr Visser : Yes, that is a matter where we may ask to view who that information has been provided to.

CHAIR: As there are no further questions, Mr Visser, thank you very much for attending. Is there anything else you would like to bring to the committee's attention at this stage?

Mr Visser : No, not at this stage.

CHAIR: Thank you very much for your time. We much appreciate it.

Pr oceedings suspended from 11:43 to 13:04