A man who was forced to hand over his phone and passcode to the Australian Border Force after returning to Sydney on holiday has labeled the tactic an “absolute gross violation of privacy” as tech advocates demand transparency and stronger privacy protections for people’s devices during them. to enter the country.
Developer James and his partner returned from a 10-day vacation in Fiji earlier this month and were stopped by border officials at Sydney airport. They were taken aside, and after emptying their suitcases, an employee asked them to write down their phone passwords on a piece of paper before taking their phones into another room.
Half an hour passed before their phones were returned, and they were allowed to leave. James initially posted about his suffering on Reddit.
“We were not informed why they wanted to look at the phones. We weren’t told anything, “he told Guardian Australia.
“Who knows what they get out of it?” With your phone and your passcode they have everything, access to your entire email history, saved passwords, banking, Medicare, myGov. It’s just that big. ”
James said he had no idea what officials were looking at, whether a copy of any of the data had been made, where it would be stored and who would have access to it.
“It’s an absolute gross violation of privacy.”
Under the Customs Act, ABF officers can force people to hand over their passcodes to allow a telephone search, as part of their powers to examine people’s belongings at the border, including documents and photos on mobile phones.
An ABF spokesman did not answer specific questions about James’ case, nor questions about how often the power is used or where the data is stored.
The spokesman said people could be questioned and their phone searched “if they suspect the person may be of interest for immigration, customs, biosecurity, health, police or national security reasons”.
“The ABF is exercising these powers to protect the Australian community from harm and to fulfill its mission to protect Australia’s border and enable legitimate travel and trade. Information captured by passenger phones has contributed to the success of many domestic police operations targeting illegal activities,” he said. the spokesperson.
“If an individual refuses to comply with a request for an examination of their electronic device, they may be referred for further police action.”
Within the borders of Australia, there are more barriers for police to access devices, including needing a warrant before people can be forced to unlock their phones.
In 2016, Nine newspapers reported A man sued ABF after text messages were sent and then removed from his phone by an official while they were in possession of his phone at the border in 2014.
A request for freedom of information in 2016 revealed that the department had apologized to the man in 2015, and determined that the counterterrorism unit officer had violated ABF’s code of conduct.
Electronic Frontiers Australia President Justin Warren said it was impossible to determine how frequent such phone searches were because the section did not publish any data on it – unlike data on warrants obtained under other domestic surveillance laws.
“There is no transparency, and the authorities prefer it that way. Anecdotally, it seems to be happening quite a lot,” Warren said, adding that it showed the need for stronger privacy rights in Australia.
“This is just another example of how few rights Australians actually have. We need a Rights Project in Australia to prevent abuses like this, and real consequences for abuse when it happens.”
Samantha Floreani, program manager at Digital Rights Watch, agreed.
“This is a prime example of the kind of privacy violations that can occur when you don’t have fundamental human rights,” she said. “The Federal Charter of Human Rights is long overdue in Australia.
“It is utterly irrational for people to be subjected to such an invasion of privacy without even an explanation.”
Warren advised people flying into Australia not to have anything on their device that they don’t want authorities to access, and to make sure their device is encrypted with a strong passcode.
“Once they take your device out of your sight, you should assume it’s completely compromised and they have a copy of everything that was on it, and act accordingly,” he said.
Warren stressed that people in such a situation should also seek legal advice.
James said the incident made him rethink what he would do next time he travels from Australia.
“I think what will I do next time we fly to Sydney, I’ll just press the factory reset button on the phone and when they pull me up again I’ll give them a fresh clean factory reset. ”