Under a new law in New Zealand, travelers can be fined thousands of dollars if they refuse to hand over their mobile password to border officials. This new law is facing criticism from travelers around the globe and from civil rights groups in the country.
Reveal your mobile password… or face a fine in New Zealand
This new law is part of the Customs and Excise Act of 2018, which went into effect last week. Border officials in New Zealand can now ask any traveler to unlock any electronic device so it can be searched. Anyone who refuses to provide their passcode may be fined up to US$3,200 (NZ$5,000).
“If the person has no reasonable excuse for failing to comply with [handing over your password], the person commits an offence, and is liable on conviction to a fine not exceeding $5,000,” the law says.
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In addition to the fine, officials also have the authority to confiscate a device from any traveler who refuses to unlock it. Further, customs officials can retain the device for as long as their search takes. Under the new law, the device must be returned to the owner after the search “unless evidence of relevant offending is found.”
The New Zealand Customs Service believes such a law is necessary because the shift from paper-based systems to electronic systems means prohibited material and documents are now being stored electronically.
It must be noted that officials need to have “reasonable cause” to demand a traveler’s mobile password. An access request can only be made if the official suspects the owner could be committing a crime, like unlawful import or export of any product or import or export of prohibited goods. Further, the law allows officials to access data stored locally on the device only and not data stored on cloud services like iCloud or Google Drive.
Travelers can also refuse to reveal their mobile password or passcode to any other device if they have a “reasonable excuse.”
Unfair to innocent travelers
The New Zealand Council for Civil Liberties (CCLL) says such a law is an invasion of privacy, not only for the person who owns the device, but also to those with whom they have communicated.
“Modern smartphones contain a large amount of highly sensitive private information including emails, letters, medical records, personal photos, and very personal photos,” CCLL Chairman Thomas Beagle said in a statement.
The council noted that professional criminals will be able to get around such a law, but innocent citizens will face the brunt of the law. For instance, users traveling with their partner’s phone may not be able to unlock it, or a traveler carrying a laptop used by multiple people won’t have access to the files of the other users. The CCLL is demanding the removal of the law, saying it “is grossly excessive and cannot be justified.”
Privacy Foundation New Zealand also says it has registered its concerns with the government over the retention of passwords by border officials.
Similar laws in other countries
New Zealand is not the first country to allow its customs officials to search traveler’s devices. However, it is the first country to introduce a fine for those who refuse to hand over their mobile password.
In the U.S., travelers can be denied entry if they don’t cooperate with border officials. U.S. citizens can be detained and their device confiscated if they refuse to reveal their mobile password. Both the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) and the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) have sued the government. These privacy groups want officials to get a warrant based on probable cause for searching a device.
Canadian border agents can also search electronic devices like smartphones, laptops and tablets. According to a new guide published by the B.C. Civil Liberties Association, “the CBSA can and does search electronic devices at the border” without a warrant and often randomly. The group says it may or may not be legal for border agents to force travelers to unlock their phone under the Customs Act. However, the group admits that denying access can lead to more problems like increased suspicion, seizure of the device, denial of entry into Canada or even arrest.