Law enforcement leaning on Austrac as legislation 'lags' behind technology

Austrac CEO has shared how her agency is aiding Australian law enforcement as technology advances without corresponding legislation to close gaps for criminal exploitation.

One of the top priorities for the Australian Transaction Reports and Analysis Centre (Austrac) is combatting child sexual abuse, and as detailed by CEO Nicole Rose, the role of Austrac in bringing down such activity includes analysing financial transactions received from the financial services sector.

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"We use this information to look for indicators of criminal behaviour and generate financial intelligence, which is shared with law enforcement agencies to inform investigations to find and convict the perpetrators of these abhorrent crimes against children," Rose said, addressing the National Press Club (NPC) on Wednesday.

See also: New Australian Online Safety Act to include take-down of cyber abuse

One of the greatest challenges Rose said law enforcement is facing is the advancement of communications technology, without corresponding legislation to close gaps for criminal exploitation.

"The mere fact that one criminal communication may involve multiple service or application providers has required Austrac to fill a growing need to access and analyse hundreds of thousands of financial transactions," she said.

"We have been working with law enforcement and industry partners to better target and disrupt this type of offending, resulting in a significant increase in the identification of previously unknown targets for investigation of child abuse."

Rose said advancements in technology have made it possible for offenders to order, pay, and view the live streaming of children being abused anywhere in the world.

"Financial transaction information was once only a small part of the evidence relied on to find and convict offenders, but today, police rely on financial transaction information and subsequent pattern analysis more than ever before," she explained.

Rose appeared at the NPC following the release of a study from the Australian Institute of Criminology (AIC).

She said Austrac provided transaction data for the study that concerned 256 individuals resident in Australia who had made at least one transaction to a known facilitator in the Philippines.

See also: Westpac CEO out following Austrac anti-money laundering allegations

"Many of the Australians identified with sending funds were previously completely unknown to law enforcement," she said.

"Of course, this crime involves victims in many countries but, in partnership with our global law enforcement partners and NGOs, we have identified the Philippines as a hub for this live streaming abuse," she said.

The study showed that 256 Australians spent more than AU$1.3 million over a 13-year period to watch child sexual abuse that was live streamed from the Philippines.

"It is alarming that there is a continuing trend of Australians purchasing, viewing and directing the abuse of children on the internet," she said.

Rose said Austrac shares information with nearly 100 other financial intelligence or regulatory units across the world.

In 2019, there were over 3,500 international exchanges of financial intelligence.

"In the 18-19 financial year, our partners conducted over 2 million searches to assist their investigations, with our Home Affairs colleagues in the ABF, AFP, and ACIC being major users in their efforts to fight serious crime," she added.

Touching on Austrac's Fintel Alliance, a public-private initiative comprising 28 members, Rose said the alliance in late 2019 shared insights and understanding of indicators of financial activity that may identify child abuse, including live-streaming.

Read more: Australia's Fintel Alliance combining data to thwart criminal activity

"Through these efforts, we have seen a 643% increase in suspicious matter reporting compared to before the formation of the Alliance," she said.

"Clearly, there is a great deal more work to be done to ensure our children's safety and many challenges ahead, but the increase in collaboration is already resulting in real outcomes.

"What is holding us back, is legislation lagging behind technology."

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