Kelsey Munro, Sydney Morning Herald, 22nd May 2015
Transport for NSW has provided police and immigration authorities with access to the personal information of dozens of Opal card users suspected of criminal offences.
Registered Opal cards, which are linked with users’ names, addresses, email and phone contacts and bank accounts, provide the authorities with the ability to track a users’ journeys across the public transport network by time and date.
The first figures on information disclosures to be released by Transport for NSW indicate there have been 166 Law Enforcement Requests from NSW Police, and 15 from the Department of Immigration, since the full rollout of the Opal system in December 2014. Personal information was disclosed on 57 of these requests: 19 for proceedings of an offence, 6 missing persons and 32 on reasonable grounds of an offence, according to a department spokesman.
This compares with almost 11,000 incidents of access to Queensland’s Go Cards, mostly by state police, between 2006 and 2014.
Fairfax Media revealed last year that law enforcement and other government agencies would be able to access passengers’ Opal card data without a warrant in a move which worried civil libertarians but was defended by Police Commissioner Andrew Scipione.
Solicitor Stephen Blanks, President of the NSW Council of Civil Liberties, said the fact that Transport was refusing two-thirds of law enforcement requests for Opal data suggested police were attempting to abuse their access to the information.
“It’s unsatisfactory that it’s left to the Department of Transport to decide whether or not this personal information should be handed over,” Mr Blanks said. “That decision should be in the hands of a judge, or a person who issues a warrant. … I’m concerned that police are not exercising the necessary degree of restraint in asking for personal information where it’s not appropriate.”
There are unregistered Opal cards which allow users to travel anonymously, but they can not be automatically topped up or replaced when lost.
A police media spokesman said it was not practical to track which, if any, of these requests had led to a successful arrest or location of a missing person as the requests were made separately at local area command level.
A spokesperson for the Immigration Department said the Opal card data was a “useful new source of information” which was used by immigration compliance officers “to assist in locating unlawful non-citizens”.
Other agencies permitted to request Opal data access include the police forces of other states, the NSW Crime Commission, the Australian Crime Commission, the Australian Federal Police, the Director of Public Prosecutions in NSW and other states, the Department of Corrective Services, the Department of Juvenile Justice and other agencies as the government sees fit to include.
As well as assisting law enforcement, Opal customer data is a rich source of information for transport authorities’ planning purposes, and is to be stored for seven years.
In the week beginning May 11, there were more than 8 million trips taken on Opal cards. In total, there had been 270 million Opal card trips ever taken by 17 May, 2015.
The most common mode of transport used was rail (about 180 million trips), followed by bus travel (81 million), then ferries (6 million) and light rail (2 million), the department said.