WA Today: Internal memo reveals WA Police lost six years of sexual assault emails

Western Australia’s Police force lost six years’ worth of emails sent to an address set up to receive correspondence from sexual assault victims, documents obtained under Freedom of Information laws have revealed.

The revelation means there were four more years worth of possible investigation leads lost than previously known publicly.

In July last year, this masthead revealed that anyone who attempted to report a sexual crime between February 2016 and March 2018 via an email listed on the WA Police website were sending highly sensitive reports to a ghost address not monitored by police.

WAtoday discovered archived webpages that suggested the email was unmonitored for at least two years, but until now WA Police have ignored repeated questions about the true length of time the administration error was in place.

Now, an internal memo obtained under FOI by WAtoday has revealed the address promoted to victims of sexual assault stopped receiving emails as far back as August 2012.

The memo, which was prepared by WA Police’s Chief Information Officer Andrew Cann at the request of Assistant Commissioner Brad Royce in the wake of publicity into the ghost email address, stated that the email address sex.assault@wa.gov.au was deleted in August 2012.

“Records show that email servers started responding to internal users that mail was undeliverable to sex.assault@police.wa.gov.au from 6th August 2012. This indicates that the primary account name sex.assault@police.wa.gov.au was deleted around that time,” the memo reads.

The memo explains that another ‘alias’ address set up alongside the primary address to receive incoming mail had always worked correctly and was in still in use today, but the ‘dead’ address was promoted on WA Police’s specific website for sexual assault victims for years.

WAtoday has previously reported the incorrect email address was also promoted for years on other agencies’ websites, including Curtin University and the Human Rights Commission.

Scores of WA sex assault victims will never be heard after lost emails were deleted, WA Police confirms
The memo goes on to suggest the email address in question may have been deactivated as, “it is an inappropriate email and was possibly considered offensive”.

Mr Cann wrote that his team had been unable to find any record of who deleted the email.

The documents also reveal there were no redirection plans set up when the email address was deleted, and none of the potentially thousands of emails that were sent to the sex squad via the address over the six-year period could ever be retrieved.

“Emails sent to a non-existent email address can only be re-directed to another mailbox where an alias exists or they are dropped (deleted). Systems do not retain copies of dropped emails as they are usually associated with spam and/or malicious emails,” the memo reads.

The memo also states it was “standard cybersecurity practice” to not store undeliverable incoming emails because “systems would quickly fill up and stop working”.

“We get thousands of emails per year that are undeliverable because hackers and spammers use emails addressed to randomly generated addresses seeking point of entry. We let the computer systems drop these as there are far too many to review individually,” the memo continues.

WA Police only began publicising the correct email address for the sex squad after Perth woman Melissa Callanan discovered police had no record of multiple emails she had sent in 2018 detailing her experience of a sexual harassment incident.

Ms Callanan received no bounceback emails to indicate the address was not operational, and only made the discovery when she approached a police station in person and traces of her emails could not be found.

The memo states that there was no bounceback email feature for anyone outside of WA Police staff to indicate the email address was wrong because it is “poor cybersecurity practice to do so”.

Since the email address was corrected in 2018, police last year said there had been almost 2000 emails received, including 19 matters that required investigation.

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