PhD research explores how countries share customs intelligence

Victoria University of Wellington student Bruce Thomas’ path to completing his Doctor of Philosophy in Law was more difficult than most, but his research could have a significant impact on how countries share customs intelligence.

Photo of Bruce Thomas
Bruce Thomas

For customs agencies overseeing a nation’s border, information about suspicious activity can be valuable–for example, by helping to prevent the import of dangerous or counterfeit goods. Many agencies share intelligence (that is, information relevant to risk management and considered secret by the providing state) with their counterparts in other countries.

However, Bruce says the agreements that enable this intelligence sharing are often deficient in their treatment of human rights. For his PhD thesis, he decided to research a possible solution.

Bruce started studying for his PhD part-time ten years ago, while he was working in government. “I recommend it to any older person who is considering tertiary study. I found that being a mature student was advantageous because I took a more considered approach to what I read, asked, and wrote.”

His professional experience also helped in other ways. “I had the necessary relationships, clearance and access to people and information in the government agencies involved, having worked for many years in the Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet, Police and Customs,” he says.

Unfortunately, two years into his research, Bruce was diagnosed with a brain tumour. Surgery to remove the tumour was successful, but because it had been in the language centre of his brain, it meant a prolonged recovery period and made studying difficult. “I lost language skills and some short-term and long-term memory. I lost the ability to concentrate for long spells and the ability to read and comprehend quickly. These skills all came back over time.”

Bruce initially planned to complete his PhD by studying part-time for four years. “Looking back, I think that was too optimistic, even had I not had the brain tumour,” he says, but in December 2018 he finally crossed the stage to receive his doctorate.

“Bruce has produced a remarkable dissertation,” says Professor Tony Smith, one of Bruce’s supervisors. “It is a significant and highly original contribution to the scholarly literature.”

Bruce’s proposed approach makes use of technology. To better manage and monitor imports and exports, customs agencies around the world are increasingly adopting electronic ‘single window systems’–where importers and exporters can submit transaction information such as customs declarations or permit applications digitally into one system. Other relevant government agencies can then access this information, and it can be shared with other countries. This makes trade easier as importers and exporters don’t need to lodge information separately with numerous agencies.

Bruce suggests that, with an appropriate legal framework, these single window systems could also be used to automate intelligence exchanges. “While there are currently some systems like INTERPOL that allow intelligence to be shared electronically, the sharing in these systems is initiated manually rather than automated. The systems aren't designed to share intelligence alongside real-time transactional information.”

Key to Bruce’s proposed framework are transparent terms for managing human rights. He says that intelligence-sharing agreements can, and should, include protection for rights such as access to justice, freedom from arbitrary search and seizure, freedom from torture, and, in particular, the right to privacy.

However, governments often exempt security and law enforcement activity from privacy compliance. People don’t know how their information is being managed, and this lack of transparency affects public confidence in the intelligence-sharing process, he says.

Bruce says that public confidence would improve if there were clear rules around how rights such as privacy are treated.

“Intelligence sharing is often done in a way that is secret and doesn’t allow for public scrutiny and debate. I saw an opportunity to include transparent terms for treating privacy and other human rights. My research contains messages and an approach that will benefit intelligence cooperation and public confidence in intelligence-sharing processes,” he says.

Professor Tony Smith says Bruce’s ideas could have a real impact. “The widespread adoption of the legal framework would greatly facilitate international commercial transactions.”

Bruce’s 300-page thesis, ‘A legal framework for sharing customs intelligence through the single window system’, sets out both a proposed international treaty for countries to share intelligence electronically, and a model domestic law that can be used to implement the provisions of the treaty locally.

It also contains an unusual line on the Acknowledgments page, thanking the “superhero neurosurgeons and the team at Wellington Hospital” for using their “remarkable skill to remove my brain tumour and save my life”.

Bruce says that despite having to overcome such a major health challenge and the journey taking longer than expected, he has enjoyed the experience of completing his degree.

“I'm incredibly grateful to the University and especially [Emeritus] Professor Tony Angelo for all the support and guidance I have received. My PhD is very much a product of the University's support as well as my own efforts.”