Security of data in relation to firearm owners
Data from the AIC's National Firearm Theft Monitoring Program (NFTMP) showed that over the five years between 1 July 2004 and 30 June 2009, around three-quarters of firearm thefts were from private residential premises, with a mix of targeted and opportunistic incidents recorded. Given the high incidence of thefts from private residential premises, the scarcity of data about firearms was raised as a concern during the course of the inquiry. In particular, submitters and witnesses discussed the accessibility and unlawful use of firearm registries.
The Tasmanian Farmers and Graziers Association questioned the security of the various state and territory firearm registries:
Anecdotally, there is significant evidence to suggest that many of the firearm thefts in Tasmania are targeted—that is, they are targeted for the firearms, because often nothing else is taken. So you have to ask how this intelligence is being gathered by criminals in the first place. It is not difficult to see, when individuals are dealing with their firearms—whether it be submitting a form and requesting a new firearm or even when their firearm licence falls due or when they purchase ammunition—they sign registers which other members of the public have access to. These registers have their names and their addresses. The full details are on there for any subsequent person who signs that register, if they are awake, to take note of who the individual is, where they live and often, depending on what sort of register they are signing, what type of firearms they have. We could simply put a stop to many of these thefts by tightening up the security around these sorts of issues.
The Shooters Union NSW alleged that the NSW firearms database has been accessed unlawfully at times. Detective Chief Superintendent Finch, from the NSW Police, rejected this assertion:
That area has been traversed many times. In fact, the Firearms Registry has conducted a number of investigations in relation to that. There is simply no evidence that there has been any breach of security or improper release of information in terms of their records and, certainly, I am unaware of any evidence to suggest that operational police have done similar. In fact, regarding the article that commenced that, I spoke to the journalist who wrote it. It was an adlibbed story and his editor seemed to think it was a good idea to run with it—and that was the information I had at the time.
The NSW Police gave evidence that while targeted theft was more common in rural communities it was not necessarily linked to organised crime:
Our analysis and our practice has shown recently, particularly, that, when thefts occur, very often the thefts are undertaken by people from within the same communities. We certainly look at and analyse whether there is any more sinister intent—that is, whether groups such as outlaw motor cycles groups have been involved in the thefts or whether they have commissioned those thefts. Again, whilst it would be naive to suggest that has never happened, at this stage there is no conclusive evidence to say that they are involved on any scale.
Shooting clubs and organisations
Shooting clubs and organisations hold data on their members, including personal information and the types of firearms owned by a member. This data, if accessed by criminal elements, could place members at risk of firearm theft.
Shooting Australia emphasised the care taken by firearm bodies to protect their information:
Shooting Australia at our level, as I mentioned, has five member bodies. We do not have the details of the 38-odd thousand individuals. The member bodies have that information in different ways. It comes to them from state and club levels. There is a complete understanding by all involved of the need for security of that information and to guard it closely. At the national and state levels, I would suggest that those organisations do not have the details of the numbers and types of firearms but rather have simply who the members are. The details are with the state registries, as Mr Bannister mentioned, and potentially with the clubs that have performed the role of endorsing the particular members' applications et cetera.
The Shooters Union NSW described the security it uses to protect members' personal information, but simultaneously highlighted weaknesses in its security approach by virtue of the dedicated computer being connected to the internet and membership information being emailed to the firearms registry:
CHAIR: Coming back to security of information, quite a few of the submissions that we received talked about the security of data relating to gun ownership, and I imagine that that is a concern that you all would have. One of the submissions referred to a significant breach in South Australia, where the data about who were members of a gun club was released publicly. This person likened it to a shopping list for criminals who wanted to go out and find where they could get some guns and where there were guns in the community. Mr Whelan, what does your club do to guarantee the security of your membership?
Mr Whelan: Even I do not have access to the membership list. Our secretary, a guy called Daniel Gregg, has it on a dedicated computer that is not linked or connected to anything except when he has to download that and report to the firearms registry. That is done on a spreadsheet annually toreview who has kept their membership valid and who has kept their required number of shoots.
CHAIR: So that computer is not connected to the internet at all?
Mr Whelan: No, it is only used to email data to the firearms registry.
Mr Trevor Kenny outlined a specific example in which the South Australian Revolver and Pistol Association Inc. (an "umbrella organisation" with no individual members) came into possession of information contained in a database of pistol shooters comprising the personal information of individuals and the types of firearms in their possession. Mr Kenny explained:
The South Australian Revolver and Pistol Association Inc. secretary...has been the custodian of the database of pistol shooters for many years. Contained in that database is, not only the personal information of the individuals, but also the types of firearms that are in their possession. S.A.R.P.A. is the parent body of most Pistol Clubs here in South Australia and purports to be the body representing the individual clubs. It argues that club members are NOT members of S.A.R.P.A and one must ask, what they are doing with this information in the first place? Obviously the individual clubs and the Firearms Branch of the South Australian Police are appropriately in possession of such delicate information.
The Sporting Shooters' Association of Australia Inc. gave evidence that it would welcome legislation aimed at protecting the security of data:
Interestingly enough, we would actually probably enjoy some additional support in being able to protect our data. There was a case within our own organisation in Western Australia only a few short years ago where an individual took our state association to court to gain access to the membership list and won the case. We resisted it; we lost the case; we could not protect our own data legally.
The National Farmers' Federation questioned the need for further measures and instead suggested that existing privacy laws should be sufficient:
The report goes on to state -Much of the information that has been described as accessible is personal information, which is already covered by privacy legislation, and so it is relevant to consider how that law could be applied in this space, where it is not currently being used.
The security of gun ownership data was explored in chapter 4. The committee acknowledges the need to guarantee the safety of information about gun ownership to prevent registered owners being targeted for theft. Evidence given during the course of the inquiry indicated that gun and shooting clubs are not currently required to follow any particular rules or standards in relation to the security of their membership records. The committee was alarmed that the main protection afforded gun ownership information by these clubs seemed to be their storage on a computer that is mostly disconnected from the internet.
The vulnerability of gun ownership records held by gun clubs should be rectified. The committee therefore recommends that the Commonwealth government work with state and territory governments to establish national standards for the security of membership data held by gun clubs.
The committee recommends that the Commonwealth government, together with state and territory governments, establish national standards for the security of membership data held by gun clubs. ...
Registration and licensing of firearms
The committee supports the current requirements for registering and licensing firearms and considers them necessary in preventing firearms from being diverted to the illicit market. However, as part of its inquiry, the committee received evidence that there are weaknesses in the current registration and licensing systems which impact on their effectiveness. The National Firearm Licensing and Registration System (NFLRS), which was implemented following the adoption of the NFA, and the National Police Reference System (NPRS) are the two main systems currently used by police to track firearms. In particular, the NFLRS 'captures a "point-in-time picture" of firearm information held by State and Territory police agencies' own firearm registries'.
Submitters were generally of the view that the NFLRS has a number of flaws. CrimTrac acknowledged these and advised that the National Firearms Interface (NFI) has been developed to replace the NFLRS.
The committee welcomes the development of the NFI and understands that it will provide a range of benefits to law enforcement agencies, including the ability to track a firearm over its lifespan. However, the committee is also concerned that the NFI will still rely on information provided by the states and territories.
The committee refers to the recent Martin Place siege report which stated that 'the information in the new system will only be as good as the information already in the state databases' and included a recommendation that 'State and Territory police agencies, that have not already done so, should as a matter of urgency, audit their firearms data and work to upgrade the consistency and accuracy of their own holdings before transferring it to the NFI'.
The committee concurs with the recommendation of the Martin Place siege report and supports the suggestion from the NSW Police Force for a national approach for the registration of firearms. It is the committee's view that there needs to be greater consistency in the data provided by state and territory police forces regarding the registration and licensing of firearms. The committee therefore recommends that all jurisdictions update their firearm data holdings and transfer these to the NFI.
Recommendation 6 The committee recommends that all jurisdictions update their firearm data holdings and ensure the data is transferred to the National Firearms Interface.