The Australia Tax Office is seeking new powers to monitor private phone calls and emails so it can hunt down tax cheats.
It has told the Attorney-General’s Department it needs access to the “real-time telecommunications data” collected by crime-fighting agencies such as the Australian Federal Police or the Australian Crime Commission. It claims investigations into major tax fraud have been thwarted by bans on its access to live phone and internet data.
Only “historical data” held by telcos – such as names, addresses, call duration and location – can now be accessed by the ATO.
But the agency has told a parliamentary inquiry into national security laws that it could respond faster to attempts at tax-refund fraud if it could use phone intercepts.
“Access to real-time telecommunications data would enable our investigators to quickly identify those involved in suspected fraud, establish an association between two or more people, prove that two or more people have communicated at a particular time and by what means, or show that a person was at a location at a particular time,” the ATO submission said.
It wants the government to designate it as a “criminal law-enforcement agency”, along with the Police and ASIO.
Its submission to the federal parliament joint committee on intelligence and security reveals that criminals are stealing Australians’ identities to claim tax refunds.
It cites the case of a Malaysian man who had misused the tax file numbers of foreign students and itinerant workers to file electronic tax returns.
Phone companies took three days to tell the ATO where the man had made his last phone call, as he skipped around the country to avoid arrest, and migration officials deported him before the ATO could get a warrant to investigate him, … “the result being that the person of interest remained free in Malaysia to continue his attacks on our system and co-ordinate others to do the same”.
Law-enforcement agencies need a warrant to access real-time telecommunications. They must convince a judge they are investigating a “serious offence” – generally one with a penalty of at least seven years jail. Warrants may also be issued for “stored communications” – such as text messages, emails or voice messages – for investigations of crimes carrying a year in prison.
Agencies from police to the Australian Securities and Investment Commission, the RSPCA, Medicare, Centrelink and Australia Post accessed private communications data and internet logs more than 300,000 times last financial year. The ATO accessed stored data 831 times, according to figures from the Attorney-General’s Department.