The paradox of information sharing at New Zealand’s borders

Information sharing shortfalls
A New Zealand Smartgate terminal.

New Zealand’s border sector ministers are pledging ever closer cooperation with their five-eyes partners, yet information sharing between border agencies at home is stymied by legislation and systems that are not fit for purpose, writes Nicholas Dynon.

Attorney-General Christopher Finlayson and Immigration Minister Michael Woodhouse were in Ottawa, Canada on 26 June to attend the annual Five Country Ministerial.

The meeting brings together Interior Ministers, Immigration Ministers and Attorneys General from the United States, Canada, the United Kingdom, Australia and New Zealand to discuss a range of common national security issues and identify areas for collaboration. This year, topics included counter-terrorism, cyber-security and border security.

“At a time when global terror threats are heightened, these meetings are an opportunity to share intelligence and ideas with our Five Country colleagues, particularly in relation to border security issues and the general movement of people.” Minister Woodhouse said.

Joint efforts in border technology innovation were up for discussion, as well as continued cooperation on the screening and vetting of travellers, migrants and refugees. Ministers also committed to support border agencies in better using publicly available information for screening.

Systems found wanting

Just four days earlier, the Office of the Auditor-General (OAG) published its report on the use of information at New Zealand’s ports. The report, Border security: Using information to process passengers, considered whether front-line staff from Customs, Immigration New Zealand (INZ) and MPI have the systems, tools and resources to use and share information and whether there is effective collaboration between them.

It found that “improvements are needed” to how the three agencies share information among themselves.

In particular, the report cited major legislative barriers to the effective sharing of information between New Zealand’s border agencies, limiting their ability to profile and target incoming passengers, and – ironically – leading to the absurd situation that sharing with international partners is easier than sharing with each other.

It also found that some of the systems used by the agencies lead to inefficiencies with the way information is collected, shared, and used. “To make the best use of information,” it stated, “the agencies require systems to be up to date and fit for purpose.” INZ’s and MPI’s systems in particular were found wanting (this article focuses on INZ).

Ministers welcome report

Border sector ministers, Immigration Minister Michael Woodhouse, Primary Industries Minister Nathan Guy, and Customs Minister Tim Macindoe, published a media release on the day the OAG report was published, welcoming the report and drawing attention to the successes of their respective portfolios in securing the border.

“This is a positive report which recognises good collaboration between the three border agencies. It finds there are strong relationships and effective processing of passengers,” stated Minister Woodhouse.

Similarly, Minister Macindoe commented that “it is pleasing to see Customs and MPI staff are working together effectively,” and that the report “notes improved collaboration between Border Sector Agencies in recent years.”

No doubt there were positives in the report, many positives.

It did note a generally positive relationship between agencies and a general willingness from frontline staff to share information with the other agencies when required. It pointed to increased collaboration, such as the Border Sector Governance Group and initiatives such as the joint border analytics team, which although still in its infancy, sees agencies collaborating on data analytics to build predictive models.

But the report’s positives were qualified by glaring areas for improvement that the ministers have failed to publically acknowledge.

Legislation preventing information sharing

Alarmingly, the report found that, according to border staff, “it can sometimes be easier to share information with international agencies because there are only two pieces of legislation that govern this and they are quite specific.” It also found that due to the complexity of information sharing, “staff can be hesitant to share information with other agencies, which can lead to inefficiencies.”

“For example, we were told that meeting Customs’ requests for information from Immigration New Zealand takes up significant amounts of time that Immigration New Zealand could otherwise be spending identifying risks. The current legislative frameworks can slow down the sharing of information, which, in a time-pressured environment, can affect risk profiling and targeting efforts.

“For Customs, the current legislation is unclear, particularly about what information can be shared and with whom. There are about 50 pieces of legislation that govern the sharing of information between government agencies and some of these conflict with each other.”

Systems needing modernisation

The report found that each agency collects, analyses, and uses data separately, in part because their systems are not fully integrated. Although it acknowledged that not all systems should necessarily be fully integrated, it suggested that further integrating some systems would be reduce “the time each agency takes in responding to requests for information from the other agencies.”

It also identified that INZ’s Application Management System (AMS) was not designed to accommodate the growing systems requirements of border operations, including targeting risks, risk assessment, and workflow management, which are being addressed through other system solutions. The AMS, it stated, “will need to be kept under review to ensure that it is fit for purpose.”

The report also noted major systems-related gaps in relation to INZ’s passenger checks.

For the 59 visa waiver countries whose citizens do not have to apply for tourist visas to come to New Zealand, INZ relies on advanced passenger information it receives from airlines prior to flights touching down at our airports. Because INZ does not have an automated system to assess the information it receives from the airlines, this information is risk assessed manually.

Customs uses the Automated Targeting System – Global (ATS-G) to automatically assess passenger details against established risk profiles. INZ also uses ATS-G to collect Passenger Name Record Data, but because each agency assesses different risks, INZ has to manually risk profile passengers based on its risk profiles.

“This limits Immigration New Zealand’s ability to check and exclude passengers who might pose a risk,” states the report, which found the process to be inefficient. It means that only flights carrying passengers who pose the highest risk are assessed.

It also identified limitations with the information that cruise lines give to INZ about their passengers. “Immigration New Zealand does not get advance notice for cruise ship passengers because they are granted a 28-day visa waiver. Having incomplete information affects the ability of Immigration New Zealand’s intelligence staff to assess these passengers for risk.”

The report suggests that getting further information from the other agencies could improve INZ’s capacity to carry out risk assessments of cruise ship passengers… if only information sharing was less frought.

The report rightfully acknowledges that limitations to effective information sharing are not unique to the border sector. It suggests that the sector could learn lessons from a 2015 State Services Commission inquiry, Government Inquiry into matters concerning the escape of Phillip John Smith/Traynor, which highlighted problems with information sharing in the justice sector… one of those being better integration of information systems.

As passenger numbers to New Zealand continue to increase, the border sector will need to harness efficiency gains derived from the ability to share information between each other quickly and seamlessly. The catch is that the required legislative and systems changes have long development/drafting and implementation lead times, and a determined collective political will among portfolio ministers is needed to make that happen.

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