Firearms Lawyer Simon Munslow answers your legal questions.

The Loose Cannon: Your privacy


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Firearms lawyer Simon Munslow will answer your legal questions. Email him with your query or concern and we’ll publish his response here.

Q: HOW PRIVATE ARE YOUR FIREARMS RECORDS?

A: PROBABLY NOT VERY…

The whistle was well and truly blown by David Good. A Sergeant in the NSW Police Force who is also a shooter. I take my hat off to him. Being any sort of ‘Whistleblower’ is never easy, and he is clearly a man with a high level of personal integrity, who takes his oath to protect the community very seriously.

While Sergeant Good cannot categorically prove that theft of data from the Registry was used to plan the theft of firearms, he has noticed over a number of years, that a pattern exists amongst break and enter offences. The targeting of homes where there are sizeable collections of handguns in certain areas, strongly suggests that this is the case.

Sgt Good raised the matter with Police, and with the Hon Robert Brown of the Shooters Party. To his credit, Robert Brown handled the matter in a way that would address the matter, but not jeopardise Mr Good’s employment, by contacting Deputy Commissioner Owens with his concerns.

DC Owens wrote back to him recognising some of his concerns.

One concern, involved a single, stand alone, Microsoft Access database of firearms licence holders, known as the safe storage inspection database. Access to this database, was supposed to be limited to about 350 officers, involved in licensing and firearms audits, Unfortunately it was available without restriction, to any of the 16,000 plus people with access to the COPS database.

This database, which had no audit function whatsoever, could well have been downloaded onto a USB drive during the two plus years that it was accessible. It could have been accessed by thieves, by using a basic personal computer, who would be able to steal to order.

A second area of concern is the broadcast of firearms information over unsecure Police radios without any data encryption, which can be accessed by anyone in the community.

I am not all together happy with the result of Police action following the report of the problem to them. Police like any bureaucracy, tend to go into damage control when confronted with a situation of systemic wrong doing on an enormous scale.

Given that there is an issue involving Privacy, I would have been happier if Police had alerted the Privacy Commissioner. As indicated, Robert Brown would have been unwilling to do this. The Privacy Commissioner could have reported on the nature and extent of the breaches, and could have worked with, and overseen, Police action, to find a solution that would best serve the interests of the community.

If there had, as Sergeant Good suspects, been situations where a Police failure to comply with the rules led to data loss and to the commission of crime, it is important that this be revealed, and that no action be taken against owners of firearms for the loss of the firearms.

I understand that at present any Police Officer, or unsworn volunteer with COPS access (COPS is the NSW Police Force general database) can access the information on COPS, and the only record that will exist of the visit will be that the software will remember who has accessed the software previously. That is to say there is no audit functionality that will flag as suspect, any access to records by an officer who is in another Police district, and therefore may not have a ‘need to know’ information accessed.

Volunteers are widely used in Policing, both here and overseas. Here they are called “VIP’s’ ‘volunteers in Policing. They undergo some probity checks but are un-sworn. Those who enjoy crime fiction, may like to note, that this is how Patricia Cornwell, obtained much of the experience necessary to write her books.

Questions need to be asked whether an individual officer needs to know any more, than that a resident is a licensed shooter, alerting the officer to the presence of firearms on the property.

As the Police conduct a search incidental to an arrest anyway, they will recover any legal or illegal firearms discovered by the search, and a supervising officer, who is, for example, a Sergeant, could ensure that all licensed firearms had been seized.

I am not privy to the detail of the systems operated by the NSW Police Department, however, there have been criticisms made of the NSW Departmental electronic security generally. See for example the Auditor General’s Report October 2010 and the NSW Public Accounts Committee Report 2013. Both of these reports stress the ‘severity of risks associated with the collection and storage of private data makes the development and implementation of robust electronic security measures imperative’.

Thus, any claim by Minister Michael Gallagher, that Police records are secure was effectively rendered nonsensical when in Hansard (Legislative Council 13 November 2013), he advised that the volunteer policing award had been given to Mr Dennis Gapes, a volunteer at Hawkesbury Local Area Command.

Mr Gapes assisted the licensing officer by contacting over 800 firearms licence holders to arrange firearms inspections. While I am sure Mr Gapes is a man of integrity who should be applauded for his willingness to do voluntary work, my concern is that a person who is not a sworn officer should not have access to Police firearms data.

If the NSW Firearms records are not subject to robust security, given the intention of the Firearms Registry, and firearms registration generally, the failure of it to provide adequate data security makes it a parody of the UN Arms Treaty deserving of a ‘Yes Minister’ script.

Simon Munslow

Disclaimer: This article does not constitute legal advice, nor does the reading of it, give rise to any solicitor-client relationship. If confronted with a legal difficulty involving firearms I suggest you contact someone experienced in the area. 


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