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Airliner at sunset

Flying in the face of evidence

By John Coyne and Anthony Bergin

This week the Turnbull government announced with little warning that police at Australia’s domestic airports are to be given new powers to demand identification from travellers.

The announcement was part of a broader range of budget measures on aviation security, from the use of body scanners, the deployment of additional AFP officers at airports, upgrades to inbound air cargo technology, and extra funding to support regional airports to upgrade security.

When asked directly by 3AW’s Neil Mitchell on why we need this measure, the Prime Minister responded, “Dangerous times, Neil”.

... the Prime Minister responded, “Dangerous times, Neil”.

But at the moment, Australia’s domestic air passengers aren’t required to show photo identification in order to book, check-in or board an aircraft. We don’t demand this for interstate buses or rail.

In the past, we’ve heard of state police concerns that individuals involved in serious and organised crime were regularly travelling under assumed identities. This made it difficult for police to adequately investigate the movement of persons of interest.

The development of an holistic system to track those allegedly involved in serious and organised crime travelling within Australia requires some serious thought. But we are yet to see any real cost-benefit analysis that would support new ID measures at airports.

It’s hard to see how providing police at airports with the power to demand identification would deter a terrorist. Such powers may assist in tracking a suspect after any security incident. But arguably this could already be done using video camera footage from airports. It’s a requirement that obviously isn’t likely to worry a suicide bomber.

The implementation of this plan will face a number of very complex hurdles. We don’t have a national identification card in Australia. What type of identification would the police accept? Not all Australians have passports or drivers licenses. Will a library card be sufficient?

The measure will be of only limited benefit for law enforcement and almost no benefit for aviation safety and security. A police officer confirming someone’s identification won’t achieve much without the development of an extensive real-time intelligence and targeting system, like that found at our international airports. It will, however, introduce additional delays at airports and so add to the inconvenience of travellers.

Such a measure may in fact only encourage a greater trade in bogus identification documents and so expand the capabilities of organised criminals or wannabe jihadis.

Let’s not forget that the current airline booking system is designed to encourage the reduction of costs by online bookings and self-check-in at terminals.

A blanket policy requiring photo identification to be checked by a government official or airline staff would add significant costs for the airlines. As this cost would simply be passed on to travellers, it’s little surprise that the compromise solution of random police identity checks has been raised.

In 2005, Northern Ireland’s former Security Minister, Sir John Wheeler, completed an independent review of airport security and policing in Australia. The review resulted in substantial increases in airport security. In the intervening years, successive budget cuts have seen a reduction in airport security budgets.

At the time of Wheeler’s review, he could never have anticipated deadly bikie brawls as seen in 2009 in Sydney, heightened terror threats, or mass casualty attacks at airports.

In light of this, it’s probably time for another independent review of Australia’s airport security before we rush into further aviation security measures.

Originally published by: APPS Policy Forum on 18 May 2018