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Critics shocked as NSW Police push for bank data access

As NSW Police look to gain access to bank records of anyone in the state without a warrant, critics say independent oversight is vital to stop "abuses of power".

NSW Police could soon be able to access banking records without a warrant. James Martin/CNET

Police may soon have the power to access much more than retained phone and internet metadata after news that police in NSW are seeking the power to tap into bank records and financial data without a warrant.

But critics say the move would do away with the checks and balances of independent oversight in favour of granting "terrifying" new powers to police -- an example of "creeping" changes to law enforcement in Australia.

The NSW Police Force confirmed in a statement to CNET that it made a submission to the NSW Government late last year in relation to Notices to Produce Documents -- essentially a request made to an organisation to access data relating to customers. Police sought advice on amending laws around these notices, allowing them to access the financial records of every person across NSW without needing to go to court for permission.

Currently, when seeking documents from financial institutions for criminal investigations, police need to apply for a Notice to Produce Documents through a Magistrate or an officer of the Attorney General's Department.

The submission sought the advice of the Minister in relation to adding a senior NSWPF officer, who is independent to the investigation, to those who can authorise these notices.

The changes would see data such as bank records and transaction history joining the cache of digital information at NSW Police disposal, alongside Opal Card travel data stored by NSW Transport, and telecommunications data that ISPs and telcos must now keep for two years under data retention obligations.

In an interview with Fairfax media, the head of NSW Police's Fraud and Cyber Crime Squad, Detective Superintendent Arthur Katsogiannis, said police were looking to introduce a digital system to streamline data collection.

Under the new system, police officers could "go online and request banking documentation, statements, affidavits and the like" and get this information "a lot quicker and more efficiently," he told Fairfax.

Scope creep and 'abuses of power'

The news of the NSW Police Force's drive to expand its powers comes just one month after the Federal Government was slammed for allowing "scope creep" on its data retention legislation, by expanding the list of agencies with access to retained metadata to include the Australian Border Force.

The President of NSW Council for Civil Liberties Stephen Blanks has said that giving police warrantless access to bank records was another example of the pervasive creep of law enforcement power.

"One of the terrible aspects of the anti-terrorism laws that have been introduced is we just see them creeping and creeping into every other field of criminal investigation," Blanks said. "What was justified originally as extraordinary powers for investigating the very worse of crimes which threaten national security...[are now] to be used for financial matters and investigations of all kinds.

"That is one of the great dangers of giving executive agencies extraordinary powers."

Blanks said the proposal from NSW Police was "appalling" and that banks should not be "forced to be data collectors for law enforcement agencies." He also argued the judicial checks and balances of the warrant process were vital for ensuring independent oversight.

"I think it's terrifying to think that law enforcement can have access to banking information, which can be hugely revealing, without any independent oversight," he said. "Traditionally, this is through the warrant system -- if police want access to information, they have to persuade a judge to give them permission.

"That's a very important safeguard to ensure that police are not making indiscriminate requests to access data and that they're having to promptly justify the requests which they do make."

Blanks described the warrant process as an important step that protects "abuses of power," and one that can't easily be replaced by sign off from a superior law enforcement officer.

"It's just not appropriate for that process to be an internal police process," he said.

A spokesperson for the NSW Minister for Justice and Police Troy Grant declined to comment.