Friday, July 10, 2015

A massive increase in digital device seizures

Last year, in the face of media interest in digital border searches and device seizures prompted by some pretty obvious cases of political bullying and admissions they were harassing people for the FBI for "brownie points", Customs was forced to release some statistics. They said that 2014, they seized 845 devices at the border. Earlier statistics suggested that roughly 50% of these seizures were for copyright. Today, Customs released some more statistics to an FYI requester, apparently showing a massive increase in digital searches:

Records show that Customs intercepted 187 prohibited items from digital devices between 1 and 14 January 2015 from entering New Zealand. 137 items breached Intellectual Property Rights, five items were deemed objectionable material, and 45 items were categorised as "other" in Customs' database.

Assuming that "items" equals "devices seized" (which seems to be the case from previous data), 187 items in two weeks represents a massive increase in searches. Even allowing for the fact that January is a busy month, applying the same rate of seizures per visitor to other months implies that Customs carried out over 3500 digital seizures in 2014, more than four times as many as in 2013. And at this stage its worth noting that these are seizures. As Customs says,
The number of devices searched at the border would be significantly larger than the number of devices detained at the border by Customs for forensic examination.

And again, almost three-quarters of those seizures were for intellectual property. This is what Customs wants your password for: because you're watching TV.

While I don't think too many people would be upset at them seizing legally objectionable material such as child pornography at the border, when 97% of seizures - and a massively higher proportion of searches - finds no such thing, it suggests they are being over-vigorous.

But what really stinks is that after a year, they still don't have data on this. They're exercising a highly intrusive search power, enabling them to trawl through almost every aspect of someone's life, and they don't even bother to count how many times they are doing it. And that is simply unacceptable. We count search warrants. We count strip searches. We count surveillance warrants. We do this because we understand that intrusive search powers need to be combined with statutory monitoring so we can assess their effectiveness and whether they are being abused. Customs don't want to count their searches, but what data they have released strongly suggests that they do too many of them and find too litle - i.e. that those powers are being applied arbitrarily and abusively. And that is unacceptable.

(The information for this post came from FYI, New Zealand's online OIA request site).