Visiting New Zealand? Prepare to Hand Over Passwords or Pay a $3,000 Fine

Oct 2, 2018

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At the height of the 2017 electronics ban, peak frenzy occurred when it became clear that US Customs and Border Protection could seize your laptop or other electronic device if certain conditions weren’t met. We’ve since moved on to become outraged about other things, but that general feeling of unease is surfacing once more in New Zealand.

The nation’s Customs and Excise Act 2018 went into effect this week, establishing guidelines on how agents can carry out “digital strip-searches.” Prior to this, agents were authorized stop anyone at the border and demand to take a peek at their devices, but it stopped short of giving said agents the ability to also demand unlock codes and passwords. The new law addresses that (incredibly important) nuance.

hobbiton
A smartphone coming in handy on the Hobbiton Movie Set in Matamata, New Zealand (Photo by Darren Murph / The Points Guy)

Of course, you still need to give them good reason to do so – carrying around a suitcase full of coconuts could count! – but the new law puts agents in the clear when asking for passwords, pin codes, and even fingerprints. Customs spokesperson Terry Brown stated: “It is a file-by-file [search] on your phone. We’re not going into ‘the cloud’. We’ll examine your phone while it’s on flight mode. I personally have an e-device and it maintains all my records – banking data, et cetera, et cetera – so we understand the importance and significance of it.”

If a person is asked to comply but refuses, they could face a $5,000NZ ($3,298) fine.

Unfortunately, agents aren’t required to tell you what the cause of suspicion is. So if you’re chosen for a digital strip-search, you likely won’t get a straight answer when inquiring as to what you did to trigger it. One silver lining in this is the ability to keep your device on airplane mode. Increasingly, consumers are keeping important documents in the cloud, on a service such as Google Drive or Microsoft’s OneDrive, though your offline photos, documents, call history, and text history will be accessible.

backpack phone
Have smartphone, will travel (Photo by Darren Murph / The Points Guy)

If you’re curious, Radio New Zealand reports that Border officials “searched roughly 540 electronic devices at New Zealand airports in 2017.” Customs will be required to keep Parliament updated on the number of devices searched every year, and the agency said “it did not expect the number to increase.”

If you’re one of those folks that seems to always fall victim to the “random search,” be sure to check out our guide to keeping your phone data safe while going through customs.

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