​NZ customs can now demand phone or laptop passwords

Changes to customs legislation now means passengers must hand over the password to their electronic devices if asked, or be slapped with a NZ$5,000 fine.

The New Zealand Customs Service this week received new powers at the country's borders, including the ability demand a password off a passenger to search their "electronic device".

Customs officers have always been able to search a passenger's laptop or phone, but the changes to the Customs and Excise Act 2018 now specifies that passengers must hand over their password.

The legislation [PDF] states that a customs officer now has the power to make a "full search of a stored value instrument", including power to "require a user of the instrument to provide access information and other information or assistance that is reasonable and necessary to allow a person to access the instrument".

The fine for failing to do so is NZ$5,000.

Access information is defined in the legislation as including codes, passwords, and encryption keys, and any related information that enables access to an electronic device.

Customs now also has the right to copy, in addition to review, the data stored on the device, and can also confiscate it to conduct a further search.

However, there is no power for the officer to search material that is accessible from the device, but not stored in the device -- such as stored in a cloud -- and they must return it to the owner undamaged once the search is complete, unless "evidence of relevant offending is found".

"The device may be accessed, searched, reviewed, or evaluated either manually or by using a technology aid that has completed a privacy impact assessment in consultation with the Privacy Commissioner," the legislation explains.

"If a person is convicted of an offence under subsection (8), a court may order the device to be condemned to the Crown, destroyed, or returned subject to any conditions that the court thinks fit."

The person conducting the search must also delete any copies of information made once the search is complete, unless detained for a "full search".

Read also: Electronics-sniffing dogs: How K9s became a secret weapon for solving high-tech crimes (TechRepublic)

Radio New Zealand reported Privacy Commissioner John Edwards was "pretty comfortable" with where the changes to the law stood.

"There's a good balance between ensuring that our borders are protected ... and [that people] are not subject to unreasonable search of their devices," Edwards was quoted as saying.

"You know when you come into the country that you can be asked to open your suitcase and that a Customs officer can look at everything in there."

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