In a recent intrusive move, New Zealand just passed a law under which border officials will be allowed to demand that tourists unlock any electronic devices, including cell phones so that they can be searched. They can demand passwords, PINs and even encryption keys to unlock any electronic gadgets for “digital strip searches”.
The law passed under the Customs and Excise Act 2018, which came into action this week, travelers who refuse to hand over their device passwords could face prosecution and a fine of up to NZ$5,000 (£2,500).
The law also enables border officials to retain and confiscate the devices if tourists resist a search.
Civil liberties groups have reacted to the newly passed law with extreme dismay.
“Modern smartphones contain a large amount of highly sensitive private information including emails, letters, medical records, personal photos, and very personal photos, “Thomas Beagle, chairman of the New Zealand Council for Civil Liberties (CCL) said.
“Allowing Customs to be able to demand the right to examine and capture all this information is a grave invasion of personal privacy of both the person who owns the device and the people they have communicated with. The reality of this law is that it gives Customs the power to take and force the unlocking of people’s smartphones without justification or appeal – and this is exactly what Customs has always wanted”.
The law requires that officials must have a “reasonable cause” to conduct a search of gadgets but the CCL explained that border staff “do not have to prove this before confiscating your device, nor is there a way to meaningfully protest or appeal at the time of confiscation.”
Angry tourists have vowed to avoid visiting New Zealand after it became the first country to impose a fine on passengers who refuse to give their phone passwords at the border.
Previously, customs could detain anyone at the border and demand to see their devices but there was no law forcing travelers to provide their password as well.
“We’re not aware of any other country that has legislated for the potential of a penalty to be applied if people do not divulge their passwords,” New Zealand customs spokesperson Terry Brown said.
But customs officials won’t be able to access the Cloud, he said.
“It is a file-by-file (search) on your phone. We’re not going into ‘the Cloud’,” Brown told NZTV. “We’ll examine your phone while it’s on flight mode.”
However, the New Zealand Council for Civil Liberties expressed concern that it was a “grave invasion of personal privacy of both the person who owns the device and the people they have communicated with”.
Travelers have also found an outlet to express their outrage at the news by protesting on social media.