Two technicians work as they are harnessed at top of a mobile phone tower.
The communications minister says the changes will allow emergency services to “do what they do best – save lives”.(ABC News: Chris Gillette)

Police and emergency services will be able to more regularly triangulate the mobile phones of missing people deemed at “high risk” of harm under changes to telecommunications laws being rushed through parliament by the federal government.

Key points:

  • The government argues changes to the law could save the lives of more missing people
  • Two coronial inquests have recommended the changes
  • The inquests heard that the bar to order triangulation is currently too high

Currently there has to be a serious or imminent threat to a missing person’s life and health for authorities to use triangulation on their mobile phones to estimate their location.

But in September the NSW deputy coroner recommended the communications minister change the wording of the 1997 Telecommunications Act to lower the bar, declaring triangulation “can be a matter of life and death.”

It was the second coronial inquest in the state in two years to do so.

The government’s changes will mean triangulation can take place if authorities believe it will help lessen the threat to a person’s life and health.

It will be used in cases involving missing people and to help emergency services deal with disasters.

a woman talking
Michelle Rowland says the government believes the changes will speed up responses to missing people.(AAP: Mick Tsikas)

“These are critical amendments,” Communications Minister Michelle Rowland said.

“It will remove the requirement that the threat be ‘imminent’, because that requirement can be impossible to show in many cases, including in cases of missing people.

“This government believes in a timely response to matters that impact the safety of Australians.”

Changes have the potential to save lives

In cases involving missing people, the first three days are usually the most important and the legislative push was triggered by the disappearance and death of a 36-year-old man, known as CD, in Sydney’s eastern suburbs.

The new father’s mental health had declined substantially by the time he was last seen, at 7:20am on Monday, June 17, 2019.

During an extensive search, police requested a helicopter fly over the coastline, particularly around the area of Little Bay, to see if they could find a body on the cliffs or in the water.

But on June 21 a detective’s request for triangulation of CD’s mobile phone was declined because a chief inspector was not satisfied there was an “imminent” threat to life.

The mobile phone tracking laws are designed to only be used in an emergency and to ensure a person’s privacy is not violated.

Although there are differing interpretations of the law, the coronial inquiry into CD’s death heard evidence from several NSW police officers who said legislative changes would allow triangulation to take place much more often, potentially 15 to 20 times a day.

“Potentially, with the success rate of triangulation, so many missing persons could be located quickly and potentially lives saved, also saving police resources, public money and family distress,” Deputy State Coroner Erin Kennedy wrote in her finding.

She also referenced the submissions made to the inquest.

“The legislation is that from 1997, a lifetime ago in relation to electronic devices. Our information is out there, in the public domain constantly. Apps track our locations, the concept of privacy has changed considerably.”

Another inquest made a similar finding in 2020

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 the next month on Bondi Beach 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 chambers of parliament so law enforcement and emergency service organisations can do what they do best – save lives,” Ms Rowland said.

The government says the bill is intended to address a range of matters regarding information disclosure.

It adds that record-keeping rules have been updated to improve transparency and consultation has been done to ensure that appropriate privacy safeguards are still in place.

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