Sharing financial intelligence is a powerful way to fight crime and combat money laundering. Our report from the 2019 Australian Regulatory Summit examines the progress of the country’s Fintel Alliance as a prime example of an effective cross-border public-private partnership.
- Australia’s Fintel Alliance, which was set up in 2017, demonstrates the positive impact public-private partnerships have on combating financial crime.
- Financial institutions globally have told Refinitiv that the value of sharing financial intelligence within a public-private partnership outweighs its risks.
- Speakers at the recent 2019 Australian Regulatory Summit pointed to the need for greater information-sharing among reporting entities.
On a quiet Saturday morning in the affluent Melbourne suburbs of Glen Waverley and Southbank, Australian Federal Police (AFP) seized two properties worth A$4.2 million from a Chinese national accused of money laundering by the nation’s Ministry of Public Security (MPS).
Onlookers appeared surprised. They had every right to be.
The seizure, which took place on 8 June 2019 and included the forfeiture of an additional A$1.5 million worth of commercial property in the nearby suburb of Oakleigh South, is a landmark case.
It is the first seizure under the terms of the Joint Agency Arrangement on Economic Crime Cooperation between the AFP and China’s MPS, which was signed in 2017.
The case is significant, not because it involved an overseas law enforcement agency, but rather because it saw Australian police seize assets linked to financial crimes committed in China.
Cooperation between Australia and China in the fight against international crime is nothing new.
The two countries first signed law enforcement agreements in 1999, while the Australian Transaction Reports and Analysis Centre (AUSTRAC) — Australia’s financial intelligence agency — has recently signed a memorandum of understanding (MoU) with the People’s Bank of China to help tackle international money laundering.
The MoU is one of 90 such agreements Australia has with jurisdictions worldwide.
The country is also a founding member of the Financial Action Task Force, an intergovernmental body with 37 members committed to combating money laundering, terrorist financing and other threats to the integrity of the international financial system.
Sharing financial intelligence
Yet despite the broad reach of these agreements, unearthing information on money laundering and other forms of financial crime remains somewhat limited within and across jurisdictions, due to lack of private sector involvement.
A recent Refinitiv global industry report found that 86 percent of financial institutions believe that the value of sharing financial intelligence within a public-private partnership trumps its risks, especially in the fight against financial crime.
However, until recently, limited information-sharing between private and public entities in Australia presented a major challenge to the operational activities of law enforcement agencies at home and overseas.
In a poll taken at the 2019 Refinitiv Australian Regulatory Summit, attendees cited ‘cross-border’ as the third greatest risk facing the Australian anti-money laundering (AML) and counter terrorism financing (CTF) sector in 2019, behind ‘digital’ and ‘technology’.
Responding to this challenge, AUSTRAC spearheaded the formation of the Fintel Alliance, a public-private partnership of 25 organizations, including regulators, banks, and two overseas entities — the UK’s National Crime Agency and New Zealand Police’s Financial Intelligence Unit.
Established in 2017, the goal of the world’s first public-private partnership against financial crime is two-fold: to increase the resilience of the financial sector vis-à-vis exploitation by criminals; and to support law enforcement investigations into serious crime and national security matters.
According to summit speakers, the most striking features of the Fintel Alliance are its two information hubs, where members share insights and ideas.
This is a bold move, given the reluctance of banks to share data, and potentially relinquish intellectual property and market competitiveness.
With support from the International Justice Mission in the Philippines, the alliance’s landmark Countering Child Exploitation project brought about three significant outcomes in Australia within one year:
- A 316 percent increase in the number of suspicious matter reports (SMRs) related to the purchase of child exploitation material;
- The identification of previously unknown offenders, with more than 20 referrals to law enforcement agencies;
- Increased awareness of child exploitation among the financial services community through the International Centre for Missing and Exploited Children and the Financial Coalition against Child Pornography.
Suspicious matter reports
Summit speakers agreed that while the fight against financial crime has greatly intensified since the launch of the Fintel Alliance, there is room for improvement.
Currently, SMRs only capture a single piece of information at a specific point in time. As such, according to Paula Chadderton, PhD Researcher at the University of Canberra, they typically present a siloed perspective about a particular incident.
Concurring with this view, Warren Lysaght, Detective Sergeant and Lead of Money Laundering at NSW Police Force, called for reports to include multiple pieces of information, rather than submitting each piece of potential evidence separately.
Lysaght further requested that SMRs be graded in terms of risk — whether high, medium or low — to better prioritize and manage resources.
Greater information-sharing among reporting entities is key to providing a more holistic perspective of suspicious incidents that involve numerous banks. For this to happen, however, privacy laws within Australia must change, Chadderton explained.
The country could mimic the UK’s super-SAR mechanism, where the Criminal Finances Act 2017 permits reporting entities to freely share data on customers suspected of committing financial crimes, and file a single, joint report with other organizations.
Dr Nicholas Gilmour, Adjunct Fellow at Charles Sturt University, called on the industry to move away from a typologies-based approach to AML and CFT — where crimes are classified by type, such as gambling, trade-based money laundering, and bulk cash smuggling — to one that focuses on organizations.
Criminals currently rely on multiple typologies, but commonly use the same entity to facilitate money laundering activities, he explained.
Cross-border public-private partnerships
The UK’s Joint Money Laundering Intelligence Taskforce, Singapore’s AML/CFT Industry Partnership, Hong Kong’s Fraud and Money Laundering Intelligence Taskforce, and Canada’s project PROTECT are structured similarly to the public-private partnerships model of Australia’s Fintel Alliance.
With other countries running similar initiatives, the formation of a supranational alliance could help tackle financial crime on a global scale.
The recent property seizures in Melbourne and the Countering Child Exploitation project show the value of cross-border public-private partnerships.
However, while governmental bodies typically share information with overseas peers, public-private partnerships transcending borders are limited in number.
Creating such an alliance for sharing financial intelligence will be challenging. Summit speakers alluded to the varying standards and laws which participating organizations must adhere to.
The Fintel Alliance demonstrates the positive impact public-private partnerships have on combating financial crime.
Addressing issues related to data privacy, improving suspicious transaction monitoring, and embracing information-sharing will enable regulators, financial institutions and law enforcement to up the ante against the perpetrators of financial crime.