Customs and Border Protection is planning to test internal body scanning technology as a way to boost the detection of drugs that are being imported inside the bodies of drug couriers.
The proposed changes to the Customs Act 1901 will allow accredited Customs officers to offer suspects the option of an internal body scan at an international airport, as part of a year-long trial.
To conduct a body scan, Customs will have to form a reasonable suspicion that a person is carrying drugs internally and the suspect must consent to being scanned. If they refuse, they will instead undergo a hospital examination, which is the current practice.
"Last year Customs and the Australian Federal Police identified 48 drug couriers attempting to import more than 27 kilograms of illicit drugs within their bodies, including heroin and cocaine," Mr O'Connor said.
"Bringing illicit drugs into Australia is of course illegal. We want to do all we can to stop drug importation and protect Australian families from the immeasurable harm caused by drug use.
"Internally secreted drugs pose a serious health risk to a courier. It is not unusual for packages to split and for drug couriers to face serious illness or death as a result.
"Body scanning technology will help to more promptly identify if a suspect is carrying drugs internally and allow medical help to be rendered quickly," Mr O'Connor said.
Last financial year, 205 people were taken to hospital for examination under suspicion of having drugs concealed internally. Upon medical examination, less than a quarter were found to be carrying drugs.
"The option of an internal body scan will more quickly exonerate the innocent and ensure a minimum of delay for legitimate travellers," Mr O'Connor said.
The use of internal body scanning technology at airports is also expected to present significant time and money savings to Customs, AFP and our hospitals.
At the moment, when a person is suspected of internally concealing drugs, they are taken to a hospital for examination by a doctor.
"Last year AFP officers spent almost 8300 hours guarding suspects, including more than 4600 hours in hospital waiting rooms, rather than policing our airports and other public areas.
The technology produces images similar to a medical x-ray showing internal body tissue, skeleton and, where present, internal drug concealments.
"As Minister for Privacy, I'm acutely aware of community concerns about the use of such technology. I'd like to assure the public that this technology will be subject to strict controls.
"Most importantly, body scanning technology will not be used on all travellers or used randomly - it will only be used where there is a reasonable suspicion that a person is carrying drugs internally. In addition a suspect must consent to the use of body scanning technology."
Measures to ensure privacy and individual rights are respected include:
* law enforcement agencies form a reasonable suspicion that a person may be carrying illicit drugs internally before the technology can be used
* a suspect must given written consent to being subject to body scanning technology. If they don't, a hospital examination will be conducted, as is the current practice
* the operation of the body scanning technology will be conducted by a specially trained Customs officer
* the images taken are subject to storage, access and destruction controls
* children, pregnant women and the mentally impaired will not be offered a body scan.
Customs and Border Protection is working with the Office of the Australian Information Commissioner to ensure that the use of the technology balances law enforcement needs with privacy concerns.
Australia's approach is based on the United Kingdom Border Agency model, which has operated successfully since 2005.
The trial of internal body scanning technology will begin later this year after legislation is passed, consultation is conducted and other approvals are provided.
Media Adviser: Jayne Stinson