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Electronic device examinations

Since 1996, Customs has had the power to examine all goods crossing the border, including electronic devices.

Electronic devices are items such as mobile phones, iPads, Android tablets, hard drives, laptops, and digital cameras.

In 2018/19, Customs conducted 671 initial searches and 47 full searches of electronic devices, which were carried by 364 travellers – so 99.99% of the 14.5 million passengers travelling to and from New Zealand each year do not have their electronic devices searched.

Since 1 October 2018, updated Customs legislation has provided greater protection for the right of travellers to be free from unreasonable search and seizure, while also balancing the need for border protection.

Searching an electronic device

Before a Customs officer can search an electronic device they must be able to establish facts or circumstances that provide a “reasonable suspicion” that the traveller in possession of the electronic device is involved in criminal offending.

Searching an electronic device takes place after a traveller is questioned, and can take up some time depending on the device. To search the electronic device a Customs officer can ask the traveller to enter the electronic device’s password or they can ask for the password. Customs does not keep passwords or alter personal data.

The electronic device is searched with its transmitting function turned off (in flight mode) to prevent inadvertent access to material not stored on the electronic device.

At the end of the search the electronic device is returned to the passenger, or Customs may detain the electronic device for further examination.

Detaining an electronic devices

To detain or forensically examine an electronic device, a Customs officer must have “reasonable cause to believe” that evidential materrial relating to relevant offending is in the device.

Reasonable cause to believe is a higher threshold than the reasonable suspicion required to search an electronic device.

If Customs needs to detain a traveller’s electronic device for further examination, a Customs officer will explain this process to the traveller.

Penalty for not giving access

Only a New Zealand Court can impose a penalty of up to $5000 on a traveller who does not give Customs access to an electronic device. This is only possible if Customs decides to prosecute the traveller. Where the password is not provided, Customs may also seize the device as forfeit to the Crown.