As of July 1, one of the small rituals inflicted on travellers departing our shores will no longer apply. From Saturday onward, air passengers will not be required to complete the green Outgoing Passenger Card.
This is every bit as monumental as the demise of the chaps in baggy khaki shorts who used to board every aircraft arriving from overseas and march down the aisles squirting aerosol insecticide.
Announcing the end of the green-form era, Minister for Immigration and Border Protection Peter Dutton said, "Removal of the outgoing passenger card further supports the move towards a more seamless, secure and simplified border clearance process. The automated process will add to existing state-of-the art passenger processing technology at our border and will help reduce queuing times and get travellers to their destination more quickly."
According to the Department of Immigration and Border Protection, the information previously gathered via paper-based OPCs will now be collated from existing government data and will continue to be provided to users.
One of these users is the Australian Bureau of Statistics. According to a spokesperson, the ABS has been working closely with the Department of Immigration and Border Security through the trips system to ensure that the data flow will not be affected after July 1.
The ABS also revealed that over 230,000 cards went missing in March this year. According to the ABS spokesperson, that's only about 15 per cent of the total number of departing passengers, and using the wealth of data available through the DIBP trips system, the ABS has been able to fill in any missing blanks.
Since SmartGates were installed at Australia's international airports to scan the passports of departing passengers, the requirement to hand in an OPC has been a formality, and largely overlooked by the officers on duty. After passing through the SmartGate in Sydney for example, departing passengers were supposed to insert their OPC in a perspex box, however this was not policed, and nobody seemed worried if a passenger either forgot or neglected to do it.
The requirement to complete an outgoing passenger card generated a surprising degree of resentment, judging by the expressions of relief from travellers.
Australian Federation of Travel Agents chief Jayson Westbury has been a long-term crusader for the cause, arguing the information was readily available through the data the airlines collect.
Has this been so onerous? Is remembering to bring a pen, working out the date, your passport number and flight and whether or not you have $10,000 or more stashed in your wallet a cause of anxiety? Most countries impose a similar burden on departing passengers yet I see no signs of disquiet.
Perhaps this is another small step towards a brighter, happier, paper-free future, but I'm not convinced. What we have instead of a little green form is yet another manifestation of big data. This is a tacit admission on the part of the department that it knows exactly where we are going, on which flight and on which date and how long we plan to be away.
Quite possibly this is matched with our risk profile, whether there is any reason that we should be prevented from leaving Australian jurisdiction and whether our travels might constitute a source of concern. All this is known thanks to the government's ability to burrow into our tax records, our financial data, where we live, work, which websites we've been visiting and where our overseas travels might have taken us lately, and that's just for starters.
If Google knows that I go to a swim class at regular times, and pings my smartphone with an alert 30 minutes before telling me the best route to drive to avoid traffic and when I should depart, count on it that the government knows all this and more.
If the Department of Immigration and Border Protection is no longer asking me to declare whether or not I am departing the country with $10,000 or more in cash, and I could simply lie when it was a matter of ticking a box on the OPC, then you can bet the government has a fair idea of whether that might be the case.
All well and good you might say, and I agree. Anything that reinforces airline safety, enforces the law and stops those bent on joining foreign terrorist causes more than justifies the intrusion trade-off in my book.
But you better hope all that information is as safe and secure as the government would have you believe it is.
If not, someone somewhere is going to know an awful lot about you, and there is no such thing as bulletproof data.
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