Headed to New Zealand? Prepare to unlock your phone at Customs

Privacy news
3 mins
The New Zealand flag faded in the background with a phone in front of it with a picture of a kiwi bird drawn like a fingerprint.

NOTE: This post was originally published on October 16, 2018

Something fishy’s brewing down under—and it’s not just fish and chips. This month New Zealand introduced a highly invasive data law that gives Customs officials the right to not only conduct the equivalent of a digital strip search, but also to fine any traveler who refuses to comply.

The Customs and Excise Act 2018, which went into effect October 1, gives New Zealand officials the right to force travelers to unlock their electronic devices so that they can be searched. If that weren’t hairy enough, any visitors who refuse to fork over their PIN, fingerprint, or password could face prosecution and/or be fined up to 5,000 NZD (about 3,300 USD).

No steps forward for security, two steps back for privacy

In addition to granting Customs agents the right to shred your privacy, the law also gives them the ability to confiscate devices from travelers who refuse to comply. Customs agents are free to copy any data gleaned from a particular device, which opens the possibility for agents to abuse your personal data.

To make matters worse, there are no actual requirements for officers to follow before they stop someone. Instead, the decision is up to individual Customs agents—giving them more power to stop whomever they please, whenever they want.

It’s important to note that while New Zealand is not the first country to implement this type of law, it is the first to enforce fines as punishment for non-compliance. In the U.S., for example, digital strip searches have been an issue for some time now; however, if visitors refuse to hand over their passwords, the only recourse Customs officials have is to deny them entry.

Making the case for extra security

So what kinds of data could these officials be looking for? According to Customs spokesman Terry Brown, the process will include “a file-by-file [search] on your phone.” This could include potentially sensitive documents, web searches, photos, and more.

Speaking to Radio New Zealand, Customs Minister Kris Faafoi said this new policy was not only necessary, but long overdue. “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.”

The New Zealand government has also tried to assuage fears by reiterating that very few travelers will be asked to hand over the data. Customs stated that although 14 million travelers passed through in 2017, only 537 devices were examined.

A strict law with surprisingly easy workarounds

Like many privacy laws, this one only skims the surface. Without giving law enforcement access to digital cloud or backup files, it’s incredibly easy for criminals, terrorists (and people with something to hide) to simply back up their devices before they travel.

Inversely, If the information on a particular person’s device is incriminating enough, the person could simply pay the fine and move on. So while it may be a pain, the easiest way to avoid dealing with this issue is to either A) back up your phone before you leave or B) save all your sensitive information to the cloud.

Traveling to New Zealand knowing your phone or tablet is going to be searched beforehand gives you plenty of time to enact the proper privacy protocols. Have a few photos you don’t want to a stranger looking at? Wipe ’em. Have a few emails you’d like to keep private? Send them to the cloud.

It doesn’t matter if you have nothing to hide

Only a few weeks into its existence, the law has been met with a huge tide of opposition. Privacy advocates like the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) and New Zealand Council for Civil Liberties (CCL) have both made their disdain for the new law heard. In a recent statement, the CCL claims:

“Any professional criminal could easily store their data on the internet, travel with a wiped phone, and restore it once they enter the country. Any criminal who fails to do this would surely pay $5k fine rather than reveal evidence relating to crimes that might involve jail time.”

Even if your social media profiles are full of boring food pics and strangers posting warm birthday wishes on your wall, the fact that New Zealand has begun enforcing this law is alarming.

Is this another case of security theater, or is this another step in the long line of progressively invasive data laws that are slowly but surely restricting our freedom?

We’d love to hear your thoughts on this matter. Leave your comments below.