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A forgotten password could cost you $5,000

2 October 2018

You had better not forget the password for your phone or laptop if you're traveling in or out of New Zealand from this point forwards.

If you do forget the password, or refuse to hand it over, you could cop a $5,000 fine for your arrogance.

Owch!

This is all thanks to the new Customs and Excise Act 2018, which came into effect yesterday, October 1st.

Of course we've been assured by the powers that be, that they won't be abusing their powers (like so many other government agencies appear to do on a regular basis -- just ask Kim Dotcom, Niki Hager and a raft of others about that). They reckon that they'll only demand access when they have "reasonable suspicion".

Hmmm... let's wait and see on that, shall we? After all, Customs admits that it searched 540 electronic devices at the border last year alone.

But should they have any right at all to go snooping into your digital devices?

Personally, I'm on the fence over this issue.

On one hand, I can see that searching your laptop or your phone could be seen to be little different to going through the contents of your luggage or sticking a pinky up your backside -- both of which are apparently accepted aspects of NZ Customs operations.

Why should the contents of your digital device be somehow immune to the prying eyes of an agency that even has a right to look up your back passage?

On the other hand however, I can't see what anyone is going to be smuggling on a phone or laptop that they couldn't bring into the country with even greater ease by way of the Internet.

The justification for physical searches of person and property are pretty obvious. It's not very hard to secret a few hundred grams of restricted substances or threats to NZ's environment in a suitcase or even "internally". However, just what do NZ Customs expect to find in the memory of a digital device?

Honestly, if someone is dumb enough to put kiddy-porn or other restricted material on their digital device before a visit to NZ Customs then chances are that they'd also tick a box on the declaration form that says "Yes, I'm carrying kiddy porn" -- because you'd have to be just that stupid.

I find it interesting that in at least one media report, Customs spokesman Terry Brown is quoted as saying that the law struck the "delicate balance" between a person's right to privacy and Customs' law enforcement responsibilities.

Seriously?

This balance seems to be: if you are prepared to give up your right to privacy you won't have to pay a $5,000 fine. This is a bit of a Clayton's balance if you ask me.

Yes, by all means, X-ray or rip my phone or laptop apart to see if it has any banned substances secretly hidden within... but keep your eyes off my very personal data or communications which pose *ZERO* risk to the nation!

Of course this won't bother most "smart" people. If you're a villain you'll just buy a cheap burner-phone before you travel and throw it away before you return -- having covertly transferred all the top-secret or illegal digital material to a drop box before jumping on the flight back home. You will also have used techniques such as steganography to hide any other data deep inside other innocuous content such as holiday snaps.

I'm sorry but in an era where we regularly see employees of the state abusing their power, I don't think I'm prepared to give them the keys to my kingdom on "trust".

What do readers think? Fair or foul?

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