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In New Zealand, Customs Officials Can Strip Search Your Phone or Computer

photo of a man handing over his passport at New Zealand customs.
Assistant customs officers check passports at airports (Photo: New Zealand Customs Service)

A New Zealand law came into effect on Monday granting the country’s customs officials the authority to digitally strip search your phones and electronic devices.

Anyone traveling through New Zealand can be fined up to $5,000 if they do not allow customs officials to search their electronic devices. With the new Customs and Excise Act 2108, customs officials are allowed to “digitally strip search” smartphones and laptops as well as other related digital devices. Travelers must comply by providing access – passwords, PIN codes or fingerprints to unlock their devices.

Before the new law became effective today, customs officials in New Zealand had the rights to see the electronic devices of travelers passing through the border. But now with the updated law, they can demand travelers unlock their devices if they have reasonable suspicion of wrongdoing.

Civil Rights Advocates Consider the New Law an Invasion of Privacy

Customs spokesman Terry Brown noted that travelers’ phones would be subjected to a file-by-file search. But examiners would not go into the “cloud” to analyze peoples’ phones. Devices would be examined on flight mode, he said.

If people refuse to have their devices searched, customs can seize phones or laptops and subject them to a forensic search. Travelers can also be subjected to a fine that could reach up to $5,000.

According to Brown, the updated law is cognizant of the need to balance people’s privacy rights and the responsibilities of customs officials. He said he is not unaware of the fact that people store sensitive information on their mobile devices, but members of the public are not taking kindly to the development.

Thomas Beagle, spokesman for the Council for Civil Liberties, called the law an invasion of privacy. He said it is unfair that customs officials could compel people to provide access to personal data such as medical records and financial data among others on personal devices.

Even though the law stipulates that customs can only search people based on reasonable suspicion of wrongdoing, the law does not indicate that people must be told why they are being suspected.

“Nowadays we’ve got everything on our phones; we’ve got all our personal life, all our doctors’ records, our emails, absolutely everything on it, and customs can take that and keep it,” said Beagle.

“They don’t have to tell you what the cause of that suspicion is, there’s no way to challenge it,” he added.

Digital Strip Searches Called Necessary

Customs Minister Kris Faafoi said the ability to search the phones of travelers is necessary for security reasons.

“A lot of the organized crime groups are becoming a lot more sophisticated in the ways they’re trying to get things across the border,” Faafoi said. “And if we do think they’re up to that kind of business, then getting intelligence from smartphones and computers can be useful for a prosecution.”

Beagle would not agree with the minister, adding real criminals are smart and would not store any incriminating material on their phones but rather online.

John Edwards, the privacy commissioner who participated in drafting the new law said the legislation stands in good stead. He said if customs officers can search your suitcase and luggage on entering into a country, then searching your smartphones or laptops wouldn’t be any different.

About 540 laptops and smartphones were searched across New Zealand airports last year. Customs is required to report to the New Zealand Parliament data on the numbers of devices searched annually.

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