The database used by immigration authorities to detect criminals, terrorists and other undersirables entering Australia has been criticised as outdated and inaccurate. A report by the National Audit Office has found serious problems with the Immigration Department’s Movement Alert List, the database aimed at protecting Australia from dangerous people. The report found the quality of the information on the system had been declining for several years. It also criticised the Immigration Department for not properly maintaining the database and for failing to purge it of dated, inaccurate information.

The report, which made five recommendations, noted the integrity of the database had long been a problem. “Despite efforts to improve MAL data, the overall quality of data has been declining in recent years,” the Audit Office said. “Contributing to this position has been the challenge faced by the department in implementing an effective accountability regime to assure the quality of records over time.” Compounding the problem was the fact that no one in the department took responsibility for flaws in the system. The system’s shortcomings increased the likelihood that authorities might fail to detect a person who posed a threat to the community, the report found. However, the auditor said there was no evidence this had occurred.

The Audit Office said the department had conducted numerous reviews aimed at improving the quality of information, but noted that “most often, these actions falter at the point where someone within DIAC has to take responsibility for carrying out corrective action”.

The quality of the Immigration Department’s record-keeping has long been an issue. In 2005, the Palmer Report into the wrongful detention of Cornelia Rau criticised the department for “siloing” information.

The MAL is a huge, sprawling database comprising millions of entries. It has two components: a Person Alert List (PAL), which is a database of more than 680,000 people on whom Immigration holds “adverse” information; and more than 2.4 million records of travel documents believed to be lost, stolen or otherwise considered suspect. At present fewer than 1000 Australians are included on the list.

The Audit Office criticised Immigration for wanting to expand the number of Australians on the list. “DIAC’s policy on the inclusion of Australians on MAL is not currently coherent or complete,” the auditor wrote. “It has not fully clarified its reasons for wanting to list Australians on MAL, nor therefore identified the specific characteristics that would justify considering Australians for listing on PAL.”