Why NZ is demanding travellers hand over phone passwords

Travellers heading over to New Zealand can now be fined more than $4000 if they refuse to hand over their smartphone passwords upon arrival.

The nation’s highly scrutinised Customs and Excise Act 2018 came into effect this week allowing customs officials to demand “access information”— like passwords, PINs and encryption keys.

Border officials can now demand that people unlock their phone and other electronic devices so they can be searched – a decision that is causing outrage amongst travellers and union officials.

Refusal to comply could lead to prosecution and a fine of up to 5,000 New Zealand dollars – roughly $4180 Australian.

Border officials can demand that people unlock their phone and other electronic devices so they can be searched. Image: Getty

Thomas Beagle from the New Zealand Council for Civil Liberties (CCL) condemned the decision, saying modern smartphones contain a large amount of highly sensitive private information including emails, letters, medical records, personal photos, and very personal photos.

“The reality of this law is that it gives Customs the power to take and force the unlock of peoples smartphones without justification or appeal — and this is exactly what Customs has always wanted,” Mr Beagle said in a statement.

The group said there was no justification for the expansion of Customs’ powers and the procedures of the new law were “lightweight” with “no oversight”.

“We think that this is disproportionate – the imposition on regular law abiding people far outweighs the minor benefits realisable through the use of the power.

Refusal to comply could lead to prosecution and a fine of up to $4180. Image: Getty

“Demanding people hand over the contents of their smartphones containing personal data for the ostensible purpose of preventing crimes against the Customs Act is grossly excessive and cannot be justified.”

According to CNN, Privacy Foundation New Zealand said members had also expressed concern to the government during the consultation process.

A spokeswoman for New Zealand Customs reportedly said the change to the law was necessary as “the shift from paper-based systems to electronic systems has meant that the majority of prohibited material and documents are now stored electronically.”