A Sunday Story for the 16th of November 2014
Volume 351
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Can Immigration Officers demand your passwords? 

-By Mary Ward



Items declared? Yes.


Bag scanned? Yes.


Phone and computer in a separate tray? Yes.


"And, could we just get the password for this laptop, sir?"


It's a question that is becoming increasingly common. Customs officers asking for the passwords to iPods, mobile phones and laptops, to examine them before allowing travellers to enter Australia.

It's hardly a surprising development. Security risks are no longer plastic bags full of wires and explosives. They can be in emails, text messages and files, and - as a result - completely undetectable to traditional surveillance methods.


A customs official asking for the password to your phone, tablet or laptop feels like an incredibly invasive practice. The question is: are customs officers authorised to do this, or is this just another instance of officials acting beyond their powers when it comes to policing the public?


The power for customs officers to examine goods carried by people travelling into Australia comes from section 186 of the Customs Act 1901 (Cth).


Under subsection 2 of the section, a customs officer may do "whatever is reasonably necessary to permit the examination of the goods concerned".


But is asking passengers for the passwords to electronic devices a "reasonably necessary" way of obtaining information from the devices?


A 2010 report into the powers of customs officers by the Commonwealth Ombudsman directly raised the practice of asking travellers for passwords to electronic devices when entering Australia, and no recommendations were made against the practice.


However, when we asked the Australian Customs and Border Protection Service (ACBPS) about whether it was okay for customs officers to ask for the password to a traveller's electronic device, they were reluctant to say that it was a legitimate manner of conducting investigations at the airport.


"Customs officials generally don't have the powers to demand passwords for electronic devices," a spokesperson said.

But don't go telling border security to keep their hands off your phone just yet.


Unfortunately, while there are no specific rules about travellers being required to hand over the passwords to electronic devices, the ACBPS were reluctant to say that this means you should refuse to do so.


"Generally, there are no penalties for travellers who refuse to hand over passwords to electronic devices," they said.


"However, it's in the travellers best interests that they comply with our requests."


And this is the problem travellers face when coming to Australia. While there is no specific power granted to customs officers, which allows them to demand your mobile phone passcode, there are plenty of provisions, which allow them to seize your property (see sections 203-203DB of the Customs Act).


"If they don't [provide passwords] we would then have to take the device away from them for our forensic team to examine the device in order to find what we are after," the ACBPS spokesperson told us.

"This could generally take two weeks and we would issue the customer with paperwork in relation to this."


So, what can you do to protect your privacy?

The first thing you can do is to be informed. Know the powers that officials have under the Customs Act and that they probably do not extend to demanding your passwords.


But, the second - and most important - thing you should always do is to follow the instructions of customs officials. If you haven't done anything wrong, there shouldn't be any problems.


And, if the alternative is living without your phone for a fortnight while it undergoes forensic analysis, perhaps handing over your password isn't such a bad idea after all.  


Mary Ward is currently studying a Bachelor of Arts (Media and Communications) ? Bachelor of Laws at the University of Sydney. Her deep interest in journalism combined with her developing legal acumen helps her bring forth stories that are interesting on multiple levels.
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It wasn't until the story of that poor girl who spend three nights locked in Villawood Detention Center, that I realized  that DIBP officers were demanding passwords. If you missed that story you can read it in Volume 278.



So if you don't want to tell the DIBP your passwords to your phone or your computer, then don't. Know what your rights are and don't be scared to stand up for yourself.


In Ms. Lim's case, if she had refused to give the password to her phone, yes true you may have to live without it for a couple of weeks, but then she wouldn't have spent three nights in Villawood as a result.  


Sadly all of you on temporary residency visas are the easy targets and Immigration will often treat you in a manner they would never dare to Australian Citizens.


And that is what cheeses me off (put politely).  


You should be treated with respect and politeness at all times but while the DIBP officers remain largely unaccountable, that will probably rarely happen.

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