New Zealand Customs now might force you to open up your phone—or pay up

New Zealand privacy activists have raised concerns over a new law that imposes a fine of up to NZ$5,000 (more than $3,200) for travelers—citizens and foreigners alike—who decline to unlock their digital devices when entering the country. The Southern Pacific nation is believed to be the first in the world to impose such a law.

According to the Customs and Excise Act of 2018, which took effect on October 1, travelers must comply if officials believe there is a “reasonable cause.” The law does not spell out exactly what that means, nor does it provide a means for individuals to challenge this assessment.

NZ authorities are only to search data locally held on the device and not in cloud storage.

As NZ Customs explains on its website:

Items such as mobile phones, iPads, Android tablets, hard drives, laptops, and digital cameras may be examined. An officer can ask for your password or ask you to enter it. We do not keep your password or alter your personal data.

Before an officer can search an e-device they must be able to point to facts or circumstances that provide a basis for suspecting that the person in possession of the device is involved in criminal offending.

To make a more invasive search (detain and forensically examine a device) the threshold is reasonable cause to believe—which is a higher threshold. An officer must have a reasonable belief the device contains evidence of criminal offending.

If we need to detain your device for further examination, an officer will explain this process to you.

Because of this seeming loophole, on Wednesday, the New Zealand Council for Civil Libertieswrote that any criminal would simply put incriminating data in the cloud or travel with a wiped phone.

“Any criminal who fails to do this would surely pay $5k fine rather than reveal evidence relating to crimes that might involve jail time,” the group concluded. “Rather it seems it’s going to catch normal law-abiding people who are obliged to give up their personal information or lose their smartphone. It’s also going to catch people travelling with their partner’s phone who can’t unlock it, it’s going to catch people with a laptop used by multiple people who can’t unlock the files belonging to the other users. It’s going to mean that Customs officers can take and snoop through any device they wish to.”

Like in the United States, New Zealand says digital searches at the border are exceedingly rare: of the more than 13 million passengers arriving in the country each year, only hundreds of devices were searched.

New Zealand Customs did not immediately respond to Ars’ request for comment.

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