New Zealand Law Is an Affront to Travelers' Privacy, but Things Aren't Much Better Here

In New Zealand, customs officials can now demand that travelers unlock their electronic devices.



A New Zealand law lets border officials demand that travelers entering the country unlock their electronic devices so agents can search them. Refusal to do so could mean a hefty fine.

The guidelines in New Zealand's Customs and Excise Act are believed to be the first of their kind in the world. But with the law taking effect this week, it's a good time to remember that even in the U.S., privacy protections for travelers are virtually nonexistent.

New Zealand's law says that if customs officers have "reasonable cause" to suspect that a traveler—citizen or noncitizen—is in the process of or about to break the law, they can search that person's electronic device and force the user "to provide access information," which in this case means "codes, passwords, and encryption keys."

Travelers who don't comply can be prosecuted and/or fined up to NZ$5,000 (US$3,269). Customs agents can also conduct a "full search," meaning the device can be seized and the data on it "copied, reviewed, or evaluated."

The New Zealand Customs Service claims in a press release that the legislation is necessary because it "uses modern language that is easier to understand and interpret." According to Customs Service spokesperson Terry Brown, "the travelling public is unlikely to notice much different at the border."

The New Zealand Council for Civil Liberties (CCL) disagrees, explaining in a statement of its own that the bill's "reasonable cause" requirement isn't enough. "The law now says they have to have reasonable cause, but they do not have to prove this before confiscating your device, nor is there a way to meaningfully protest or appeal at the time of confiscation," the group notes.

Criminals with something to hide can back up their data to the internet and delete it from their phones when they travel. It's "normal law-abiding people" whose privacy will be breached, the CCL says.

Laws like these are why Americans are lucky to live in the land of freedom, right? Not so fast.

While the Fourth Amendment is supposed to protect "against unreasonable searches and seizures," your rights can be put on hold at the border. As the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) points out, federal authorities claim not to need a justification to search both immigrants and American citizens at "ports of entry," such at international airports.

According to the Customs and Border Patrol (CBP) website, authorities can seize your device and copy the data on it. So what happens if your device is locked and you don't want to unlock it?

"U.S. citizens and returning green card holders can't be denied entry for refusing to provide a password," ACLU attorney Esha Bhandari told The Guardian in March 2017. But border agents can still make your life difficult. "There's a risk you could be held, detained…for hours in an unpleasant, windowless secondary inspection room," Naathan Freed Wessler, another ACLU lawyer, told CNN last year.

Things are even worse for foreign nationals. Those travelers might not be able to get into the U.S. at all if they don't want to give border agents access to their locked devices.

Entering the U.S. often means abandoning your right to privacy. Soon, things might not be much better if you're trying to leave the country. The Washington Post reported last month that at 15 airports around the nation, travelers' faces are electronically scanned before they leave the United States. And CBP says facial recognition scanning will be coming soon to each international airport in the U.S.

If you're an American looking for privacy when you travel, avoiding New Zealand might be a good idea. Unfortunately, avoiding the U.S. is a lot harder.