• Thu. Dec 1st, 2022

Cell phone triangulation laws will be changed to help find ‘high risk’ missing people

ByCindy J. Daddario

Nov 8, 2022

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

Currently, there must be a serious or imminent threat to the life and health of a missing person for authorities to use triangulation on their cellphones to estimate their location.

But in September, the NSW Deputy Coroner recommended that the Communications Minister change the wording of the Telecommunications Act 1997 to lower the bar, saying triangulation “can be a matter of life and death”.

It was the second coroner’s inquest in the state in two years to do so.

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

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

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

“These are essential changes,” Communications Minister Michelle Rowland said.

“This will remove the requirement that the threat be ‘imminent’, as this requirement may be impossible to demonstrate in many cases, including missing persons cases.

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

Changes have the potential to save lives

In missing persons cases, the first three days are usually the most important and the legislative push was sparked by the disappearance and death of a 36-year-old man, known as CD, in the eastern suburbs of Sidney.

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

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

But on June 21, a detective’s request to triangulate CD’s cellphone was denied because a chief inspector was not convinced there was an “imminent” threat to life.

Cell phone tracking laws are designed to be used only in emergencies and to ensure that a person’s privacy is not violated.

Although there are different interpretations of the law, the Coroner’s Inquest into CD’s death heard testimony from several NSW police officers who said changes to the law would allow triangulation to take place far more often, potentially 15 to 20 times a day.

“Potentially, with the success rate of triangulation, as many missing persons could be located quickly and potentially rescued, also saving police resources, public money and distress for families,” the state coroner wrote. Deputy Erin Kennedy in her conclusions.

She also referred to submissions made at the Inquiry.

“The legislation is from 1997, there’s a life when it comes to electronic devices. Our information is out there, in the public domain all the time. Apps track our locations, the concept of privacy has changed significantly.”

Another survey made a similar conclusion in 2020

In 2020, an inquest into the death of 27-year-old Thomas Hunt made a similar recommendation.

He too had suffered a deterioration in his mental health when he disappeared in March 2017 and a request for triangulation was refused.

DNA tests on human remains found the following month at Bondi Beach confirmed that he had died.

The government says it wants to change the law before something like this happens again.

“This Bill deserves the support of both Houses of Parliament so law enforcement and emergency services can do what they do best – save lives,” Ms Rowland said.

The government says the bill seeks to address a range of issues regarding the disclosure of information.

He adds that the record keeping rules have been updated to improve transparency and that consultations have been carried out to ensure that appropriate privacy safeguards are still in place.