Police and emergency services will be able to more regularly triangulate the cellphones of missing persons, who have been deemed “high risk” for damage due to changes to telecoms laws being rushed through Parliament by the federal government.
- The government argues that legislative changes could save the lives of more missing people
- Two coronal examinations recommended the changes
- The investigations have shown that the bar for ordering the triangulation is currently too high
Currently, there must be a serious or imminent threat to a missing person’s life or health for authorities to use triangulation on their cell phones to pinpoint their location.
But in September, NSW’s Deputy Medical Examiner recommended that the Communications Secretary change the wording of the Telecoms Act 1997 to lower the bar, saying that triangulation “can be a matter of life and death”.
It was the second coronal exam in the state in two years.
The government changes will mean triangulation can take place if authorities believe it will help reduce the threat to a person’s life and health.
It is used in missing person cases and to assist emergency services in dealing with disasters.
“These are crucial changes,” said Communications Secretary Michelle Rowland.
“This removes the requirement that the threat be ‘imminent’, as in many cases this requirement can be impossible to prove, including in missing persons cases.
“This Government believes in a timely response to matters affecting the safety of Australians.”
Change has the potential to save lives
In missing persons cases, the first three days are usually the most important and the legislative push was sparked by the disappearance and death of a 36-year-old man named CD in Sydney’s eastern suburbs.
The new father’s mental health had deteriorated significantly when he was last seen at 7:20am on Monday 17 June 2019.
During an extensive search, police requested a helicopter flight over the coast, specifically in the Little Bay area, to see if they could find a body on the cliffs or in the water.
But on June 21, a detective’s request to triangulate CD’s cellphone was denied because a chief inspector was not satisfied there was an “imminent” threat to life.
Cell phone tracking laws are intended to be used only in emergencies and to ensure that an individual’s privacy is not violated.
Although there are differing interpretations of the law, the coronal inquest into CD’s death heard evidence from several NSW police officers who said changes in the law would allow for much more frequent triangulation, perhaps 15 to 20 times a day.
“Possibly with triangulation’s success rate, so many missing persons could be located quickly and potentially lives saved, also saving police resources, public funds and family stress,” Assistant Medical Examiner Erin Kennedy wrote in her finding.
She also referred to the submissions made to the investigation.
“The legislation on electronic devices is from 1997, a human life ago. Our information is out there, always in the public domain. Apps track our locations, the concept of privacy has changed significantly.”
Another investigation in 2020 yielded a similar result
In 2020, an inquest into the death of 27-year-old Thomas Hunt made a similar recommendation.
He, too, had suffered a decline in his mental health when he went missing in March 2017 and a request for triangulation was denied.
DNA tests on human remains found on Bondi Beach the next month confirmed he had died.
The government says it wants to change the law before something similar happens again.
“This bill deserves the support of both houses of Parliament so that law enforcement and emergency services organizations can do what they do best – save lives,” Ms Rowland said.
The government says the bill aims to address a number of issues related to disclosure of information.
It adds that record-keeping rules have been updated to improve transparency and that consultations have been held to ensure adequate data protection safeguards remain in place.