New Zealand tells travelers: Cough up your phone passwords or pay the price

Refusing could cost you $3,300

New Zealand tells travelers: Cough up your phone passwords or pay the price
Under a new law, New Zealand customs officials can demand you unlock your electronic device. If you don’t, you can be fined, a lot. (Erik S. Lesser)

(RNN) – Next time you’re in New Zealand be prepared to hand over your phone password or cough up about $3,300.

Under a new law, the Customs and Excise Act 2018, Kiwi officials will be able to demand that travelers unlock any electronic device at the border, so it can be searched.

Refuse and those same officials could potentially confiscate your phone.

The updated law makes it clear that travelers must provide access. That could be in the form of a fingerprint, a PIN code or a password.

But officials would need to have a reasonable suspicion of wrongdoing before making such a request.

"It is a file-by-file [search] on your phone. We’re not going into 'the cloud,’” Customs spokesperson Terry Brown told Radio New Zealand. “We’ll examine your phone while it’s on flight mode.”

The New Zealand Council for Civil Liberties said it’s “disappointed” with the new law.

"Modern smartphones contain a large amount of highly sensitive private information including emails, letters, medical records, personal photos, and very personal photos,” said the group’s chairman Thomas Beagle.

“Allowing Customs to be able to demand the right to examine and capture all this information is a grave invasion of personal privacy of both the person who owns the device and the people they have communicated with."

New Zealand Customs defended the move.

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,” a spokeswoman told CNN.

New Zealand isn’t the first country to allow customs officials to search travelers devices, but it is the first one to impose a fine for failure to cooperate.

Foreign nationals traveling to the United States can be denied entry if border officials deem them to be “non-cooperative.”

U.S. citizens can be detained, and their devices confiscated for not giving customs agents access.

In the end, the New Zealand Council for Civil Liberties said there’s no real point to the law.

“Any professional criminal could easily store their data on the internet, travel with a wiped phone, and restore it once they enter the country,” a statement from the group said.

“Any criminal who fails to do this would surely pay (a $3,270) fine rather than reveal evidence relating to crimes that might involve jail time.”

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