Monday, November 28, 2016

Limiting electronic border searches

Last night the government introduced a new Customs and Excise Bill to Parliament. The bill would replace the Customs and Excise Act 1996 and one of the features is that it finally imposes some limits on Customs' unreasonable and invasive practice of electronic border searches.

The new provisions are in s207 of the bill. The short version is that Customs will only be able to search your electronic devices if they have reasonable cause to suspect "relevant offending" - defined strictly in terms of offences under the Act or the import or export of prohibited goods. And they won't be able to copy anything unless they have reasonable cause to suspect that evidence of that offending will be present. The search threshold is subject to some uncertainty as the new bill shifts prohibited goods largely to an Order In Council system, meaning we don't know exactly what is covered. But the bill includes objectionable publications and "goods that are for a dishonest purpose" (which ends up meaning a crime involving dishonesty in terms of the Crimes Act 1961). The upshot: unless the government passes some very dubious Orders In Council, Customs will not be able to abuse border searches to help police bypass the need for search warrants, they will not be able to abuse them to collect information for the SIS, and they will not be allowed to abuse them to search for pirated TV (which is the primary reason for such searches at present). They'll also be required to report annually on these searches - though not on the numbers of full vs initial searches, and not on what fraction of them actually result in finding anything.

The downside: Customs will be able to demand your password or that you assist them in unlocking any device. So, change your passwords before and after travel (better yet: don't travel with any devices or data other than "if you can read this you are a spying twatcock". Buy a burner at the other end, and get your data encrypted over the cloud).

On paper, this is still a huge advance. The problem is practice. To point out the obvious, Customs is an organisation which operates in near-total secrecy, with an entrenched culture of doing "favours" for police and foreign agencies. Do we really think the organisation which unlawfully harasses cyberactivists and harassed Kim Dotcom and his friends to earn "brownie points" with the FBI is going to change? Yeah, right. Unless this law is coupled with a purge of senior management to change the current institutional culture, I predict we will have a large number of unlawful searches, resulting in abuse of people's privacy and significant liability for the government.

The bigger problem is necessity. The new thresholds largely mirror the requirements for search warrants, sans judicial oversight. So if there's actual reasonable cause (rather than trawling and harassment), Customs could just get one of those. There's perhaps a timeliness argument, but I don't think its beyond Customs' abilities to get a proper warrant within 24 hours if they need to. Like the NZCCL, I think the intrusiveness of these searches requires proper oversight, not the suspicions of some jumped-up security thug at the border. If Customs wants to look at our devices, they should do what the police do and get a warrant for it.