Log in

No account? Create an account

Previous Entry | Next Entry


The Australian Customs Service was one of the first organisations in Australia to attempt to fully exploit the potential of information technology. By the end of the 1970s, Customs had the largest wide area computer network in Australia and a leader in the application of computer technology to import/export processing. The overall impact of this technological change has been very great and has changed the nature of work throughout the organisation.


The story of the Customs computer systems began in the invoice rooms of the old Sydney and Melbourne Customs Houses of the 1960s. In the 1960s, Australia had a complicated system of tariffs and quotas. The job of importing goods into the country was usually done by the customs agent, a small businessman. The customs agent would take the invoice from the owner, arrange the shipping and insurance and fill in a Customs entry form in quintuplicate.

These documents would then be presented at the local Customs House and the Customs officer at the desk would number it with a stamp. The documents were checked by an invoice examination officer. When they were deemed to be in order, the agent could come down and pay the the cashier. The agent would receive a document called a "clearance advice". The agent could then collect the goods, and present them, the documents and the bill to their owner.

At the end of this process Customs documents would be in several locations. The clearance advice would filed with the shipping company; the owner and agent would each have one copy of the entry and Customs would have three, one filed in date order, one under the supplier's name and a third under the owner's name. By "filed" I mean thrown into a cardboard box labelled something like "A-E June 1970- ". When it filled up, the end date was filled in and the box stored away for five years.

This system worked well for many years, and still does in some parts of the country, but by the late 1960s it was under great strain. Developments in transport technology created pressures to get goods cleared through the system faster but also increased volumes so much that it was slowing down. Customs also had a problem of enforcement, as investigating officers had to sift through the boxes looking for evidence of avoidance. Even minor sorting of entries meant dozens of officers involved in filing them away.

A central computer system was rejected due to high costs. Instead, procedures were revised to speed up the clearance of low risk entries. However, by 1969 the pressure had become too great and a report was commissioned on the design of a computer system.

It is hard to imagine the amount of work that was required of the ADP Section to implement this system, code named INSPECT - Integrated Nationwide System for Processing Entries from Customs Terminals. Networking software had to be written from scratch. All programs were written in assembler and input on punched cards. This was considered very progressive at the time.

The user interface was very simple. Data entry was free format. The Data Entry Operator keyed in a carat (^), followed by a number or letter, followed by the data. They liked this: they placed the entry they were typing in over the screen and never looked at it.

The system was implemented a month ahead of schedule on 3 October 1972. Inevitably, there were many problems and it was January 1974 before it went nationwide (although Darwin and Hobart were not connected until 1978). INSPECT was crude, often frustrating to use and never even remotely close to error free, but was hailed a success story and rightly so. Over time INSPECT became the Customs Houses' major system.


With INSPECT came the introduction of microfilm. A microfilm clerk would lay out the entry documents on a desk and use a foot pedal to operate an overhead camera - surely one of the most boring jobs in Melbourne. The microfilm number was keyed in to INSPECT. This gave officers looking for evidence of fraud three sources of information: INSPECT, the boxes, and the microfilm. An investigation would normally involve all three, because the investigation would normally be concerned with a particular importer, supplier or commodity and none of these could be looked up directly. INSPECT required an entry number; the microfilm required a microfilm number and the boxes required the patience of a saint.

Even before INSPECT was implemented, it was intended that a computer database would be constructed which could search for entry lines on these keys. Thus, SEARCH - Select Entries And Report to Customs Houses - was born. Work started in December 1972 and SEARCH was ready by March 1974. Every night, SEARCH would take the files of entries produced by INSPECT (one for each port) and merge and index them to form a database. Only a subset of the data could be kept online - the rest was rolled off onto tape. The user interface was the same as INSPECT's with free format sequences of carats, letters and numbers. Later, a facility was added that allowed them to produce reports overnight. These were printed at the computer centre and forwarded to the users by Air Express.

Search provided all the functions that the original vision had called for and many more, but by this time thinking had gone forward.

Compile As INSPECT gathered steam it became clear that officers sorting entries were being replaced, to some extent, by officers keying in entries. Someone came up with a radical idea: why not have the agents key their own entries in?

Not surprisingly, this idea took longer to get approved than some systems took to write, but the green light was finally given in June 1974. To gain the acceptance of the Customs agents, substantially reduced costs were promised. Development costs were shouldered entirely by Customs, but a user charge of 58 cents was levied on each dutiable entry entered.

Technically, COMPILE - Customs Online Method of Preparing, from Invoices, Lodgeable Entries - was the most ambitious project yet. The network would have to cope not with a handful of Customs Houses, but with hundreds of scattered agents. The new system would also have to be far more tolerant of bad input than INSPECT and it would have to be simpler to use. COMPILE was given a full screen interface. Security was required to prevent them from accessing each others' data. COMPILE took more than twice as long as SEARCH to develop. The first stage was not ready until August 1976, when it went online in Sydney and the first 300 agents and importers were connected .

As implemented, the system worked this way. The agent would key in an entry on his or her terminal. COMPILE would check it for errors and calculate the duty and sales tax. A few hour later, five copies of the entry plus the clearance advice would print out at the agent's printer. The agent could then take it down to the Customs House where it would be checked and payed for. Initially only the most common types of entries were catered for but over time COMPILE was enhanced to handle most entries. A system of priority prints was established, allowing agents to get prints more quickly if the circumstances warranted.

COMPILE became immensely popular with the agents and by 1980 75% of all entries were cleared through COMPILE. For Customs, the biggest savings came from the removal of arithmetic and other simple errors through automatic error correction. The system reduced the need for data entry and filing clerks. The number of entry prints required was reduced to three, Customs retaining only one copy for legal purposes, with no effort made to sort them. After SEARCH was modified to read COMPILE data in late 1976, even the microfilming became half hearted. The system also saved the cost of printing and mailing out tariff changes; these were handled by COMPILE and INSPECT (a 25% tariff cut was done overnight). Agent fees amounted to $2 million per annum by 1980.

For the agents, the system meant faster clearance of entries and an end to being phoned up and told that your entry was in error. COMPILE knew all the details about exchange rates and tariffs and all that sort of thing and did all the arithmetic for you. The News facility (which was implemented in mid 1977) gave the latest on (now frequent) policy, bylaw, tariff and system changes, and even told them what ships had arrived in the harbour. Some felt that this facility alone was worth the cost of the connection.


In the early 1970s, there was great concern around the world over a number of airline hijackings. Security at Australia's airports was no longer considered adequate. Responsibility was shared between Customs, the Department of Immigration, the Quarantine Service and the Australian Federal Police. Customs officers would check passports and visas of passengers against a printed list, much like the way that people used to check your bankcard against a bad cards list. In December 1973, Customs began to construct a pilot passenger processing system. This became known as PASS, for Passenger Automatic Selection System.

PASS was implemented in Sydney in July 1974, but did not go live nationally until early 1976, and many key features were not implemented until July of that year. Over time it evolved into a fairly complex system.

PASS used the now familiar free format screens with the carat signs. It had some interesting features such as name matching, profiling and random sampling of passengers, data encryption and passwords and multi screen processing. PASS gave the organisation confidence in its ability to effectively handle the increasing numbers of air passengers who arrived during the 1970s.


PASS was the first step towards a more comprehensive passenger processing system. The next step was PICS, the Passport Issue and Control System. The idea was to speed up the processing of Australian passengers by capturing passport data. PICS was intended to be to PASS what COMPILE was to INSPECT and was the most elaborate system to date, with numerous features. Although the pilot was up and running in 1978, it took more than two years to implement and key features were not available until June 1980, making it the last of the ICL applications. Relatively error prone, PICS required a considerable maintenance effort to remain functional. Ultimately, it was replaced by a new system at the Department of Foreign Affairs.


A totally different sort of system was SCRIBE - the System for Correspondence Recording and Interrogation By EDP . SCRIBE was hacked together in just two months in early 1974 as an "in house" tool for handling ministerial correspondence (some say for Attorney General Lionel Murphy's Christmas card list). It became popular and was adopted by the Departments of the Attorney-General (1974), Transport (1976), Prime Minister (1976), Immigration (1977), the Public Service Board (1977), Trade and Resources (1979), Foreign Affairs (1979) and Productivity (1979). What is most notable is not that SCRIBE was sold to other departments, but that some considered SCRIBE to be state of the art in 1979. This shows not only the influence of Customs' systems but also the ascendancy that Customs had acquired in IT.


The major technological advantage that Customs had over other agencies at the time was of course its national wide area network. This led to a number of small wide area systems which otherwise had nothing whatsoever to do with Customs, such as the manufacturers' index; consumer complaints; the natural disasters system; the bankruptcy system and the Elections system.

This was written for the 1977 Federal election. Polling booth returns were phoned in to the local Customs Houses. The central site collated the information which was made available on the terminals at the National Tally Room in Canberra. By the 1983 election, the news networks had developed applications which could read the raw data stream and produce pretty graphs and diagrams, and even predict the results (sometimes with hilarious consequences)!

After the 1983 election, the system was retired and the role was taken over by the Australian Electoral Office. Unfortunately, the task of constructing a new system from scratch was a daunting one and when a snap election was called in 1984, it was nowhere near ready. The old war house was recalled for one last campaign. The tapes, card decks and terminals were retrieved, some from basements and broom closets or from under desks where they were being used as footstools. The network had been redeveloped by this time and a number of changes had to be made but everything ran without a hitch on the night. This was the last great triumph of the ICL systems.