New Zealand’s civil rights watchdog has raised concerns over new laws allowing customs officers to demand passwords for electronic devices at the border.
Failure to comply with the so-called “digital strip search” rules, which came into effect this week, could result in a NZ$5,000 (US$3,232) fine along with the seizure and destruction of the device.
The New Zealand Council for Civil Liberties called the powers “grossly excessive.”
Council chairman Thomas Beagle said it is a grave invasion of privacy to give customs officers access to information on smartphones.
“We’re giving customs access to our entire digital lives so they can possibly stop someone importing a pirated movie or avoiding paying duty,” he said.
Customs officers must have “reasonable cause” to suspect an offense is being committed.
However, police and intelligence services faced much tougher hurdles before they could demand passwords, Beagle said.
“The reality of this law is that it gives customs the power to take and force the unlock of people’s smartphones without justification or appeal,” he said.
The New Zealand Customs Service said that officers in many countries could demand access to electronic devices, but the law was believed to be the first time that providing passwords had been specifically mentioned in legislation.
The changes were needed to clarify officers’ powers if they suspect an offense, customs spokesman Terry Brown said.
“That may be a range of things involving child exploitation, drug smuggling, terrorist activity and the like, and on that basis we can ask you to provide access to your phone through whichever means, fingerprint or password,” he told commercial radio.
New Zealand last year welcomed 6.6 million visitors and searched only 537 electronic devices, Brown said.
He did not expect the figure to rise significantly.
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