Service NSW has paused online driver licence address changes after Transport for NSW (TfNSW) found many Sydneysiders trying to evade local lockdowns by claiming to have moved to a holiday home or new premises in a less-restricted area.

As NSW tightened controls on intrastate movement and lockdown rules in certain local government areas, Service NSW suspended its website for changing address and contact details, warning that residents who provide false information to a public authority are committing an offence – which, under the NSW Crimes Act 1900 s307B, can attract fines of up to $22,000 or two years’ imprisonment.

TfNSW and NSW Police “are monitoring change of address transactions to ensure that all requested changes are genuine,” the Service NSW site warns, “and that false and misleading attempts to change residential addresses are not being made to avoid the requirements of public health orders.”

The agency hasn’t published details of how many changes it processes each year or how this has changed during lockdowns, but Australians move house more frequently than those in nearly any other country, with around 40 per cent of us changing address every five years – twice the global average.

While the trend had already slowed in recent years, COVID-era lockdowns have transformed long-established patterns as frustrated city residents move to Queensland and regional areas in record numbers.

Yet with most moves involving leaving Sydney and 85 per cent of movers staying in the same state, TfNSW has its work cut out in sorting legitimate moves from those registered solely to enable citizens to avoid lockdown restrictions.

Facing a similar problem last year, Victorian authorities did not block online address changes, but implemented manual reviews after a similar surge in licence amendments as residents rushed to regional areas to escape metropolitan lockdowns.

When moving house, isn’t

Just how TfNSW and the NSW Police might be “monitoring” change of address requests for fraud wasn’t clear, although the increasingly data-centric agency has numerous options.

Change-of-address requests could, for example, be cross-checked against movers’ records or the oceans of data collected about people’s movements, registered travel, and mandatory QR code check-ins.

TfNSW’s Future Transport Strategy leans heavily on data analytics to measure everything from bus patronage to daily traffic volumes, fare compliance, and the movement of train passengers around the state.

The agency maintains a Transport Performance and Analytics (TPA) Centre of Excellence, has built a massive Operational Data Lake for self-service analytics, and runs regular data-collection exercises such as the Household Travel Survey (HTS), which charts Sydneysiders’ movements with regular surveys.

TfNSW “is using more and more of the increasing volume of data becoming available to help us plan and improve how we deliver services and infrastructure,” the agency advises, noting that what data is analysed and how “is an evolving process as Transport continues to collect and analyse data and develop innovative methods to model and test future scenarios.”

Similarly, the agency has relied on “extensive use of data and analytics”, its latest annual report notes, to support its COVIDSafe Transport Plan.

Automatic number plate recognition (ANPR) technology has already been used to scan and check the status of cars on the road, having been used by Victoria Police throughout the pandemic to check that out-of-state cars are permitted to be in the state.

NSW Traffic and Highway Command vehicles are also using ANPR to patrol key highways in the state, potentially contributing to a larger database of citizens’ movements.

Tools of control

TfNSW had not yet responded to enquiries about how it will monitor residents’ claims to have moved, or whether its expanding data sets will be cross-checked against submitted change-of-address requests.

Authorities are toeing familiar lines as privacy concerns are raised around NSW police tests of the federal government’s broad-brush facial-recognition system, while South Australia more recently began trialling an app that will use face recognition and geolocation data to enforce home quarantine for interstate travellers.

Despite their importance for public health, increasing use of data-based systems as “tools of control” requires “a clear understanding of the long-term risks… and robust checks in place to mitigate these risks,” Dhakshayini Sooriyakumaran, director of technology policy with advocacy group Reset Australia and a PhD candidate in the ANU School of Regulation and Global Governance, warned.

“We can conceive of this trial as an attempt to automate the in-person policing of quarantine,” she said. “We need to ask questions about what kind of precedent this sets, and how this decision contributes to the normalisation of surveillance technologies.”

“We know that technologies deployed in one context inevitably end up in another. Now is the time to consider appropriate privacy, transparency and oversight measures.”