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New Zealand Passes Act Expanding Customs Access to Electronic Devices; Five Eyes Implications

New Zealand’s new Customs and Excise Act, which went into effect October 01 of this year, expands government officials’ power to seize personal devices, obtain their passwords or keys, and copy information from them. It also allows a fine of $5,000 NZD ($3,200 USD) to be imposed on those travelers who refuse the search (while still allowing these devices to be confiscated and accessed). The expansion of power to seize devices and information at customs has major international implications due to multilateral intelligence agreements between the Five Eye nations.

When a customs agent in New Zealand has “reasonable cause” to suspect that a person is “subject to the control of Customs,” the electronic devices of those individuals are subject to seizure and search. The Washington Post cites a popular phrase for these expanded powers by quoting a member of parliament addressing the “so-called digital strip searches.”

The Post spoke with the nation’s new customs minister, Kris Faafoi, who expressed reservations about the bill. “I think most people would feel that getting access to someone’s phone or someone’s device is an encroachment on privacy.” Adding support to this claim, the article went on to cite Riley v. California 2014, where U.S. Supreme Court found police needed to obtain warrants to examine an arrested individuals phone, stating: “The ability to review travelers’ cell phones allows officers to view ‘nearly every aspect of their lives — from the mundane to the intimate”

New Zealand, in addition to the United States, Canada, the United Kingdom, and Australia form the Five Eye nations. These nations agree to broadly share intelligence among each other. As reported by the New York Times, these nations, in fact, have recently moved in lockstep by issuing a warning to technology firms, demanding “‘lawful access’ to all encrypted emails, text messages and voice communications” of the companies and threatened to “compel compliance if the private companies refuse to voluntarily provide the information to the governments.”

The concern, beyond unprecedented and authoritarian laws that allow for the confiscation and downloading of a person’s electronic devices and their data all based on a custom officials suspicions, is that personal and constitutional rights would be violated through the warrantless collection and dissemination of information.

If you will be traveling into the New Zealand area, be mindful of the information contained on the devices you are entering the country with. These devices are subject to confiscation and for the information to be downloaded by government officials. Refusal to an “electronic strip search” will only tac on a fine.