On Tuesday, New Zealand became the first nation to move towards a fine for travelers who do not disclose passwords when requested to do so by agents at New Zealand’s borders. For travelers who don’t disclose the information, he or she could face a penalty of more than 3000 USD. And the law applies to both citizens of New Zealand as well as foreigners. Terry Brown, a spokesman for New Zealand Customs, claims that the law has arrived at the “appropriate remedy” for balancing national security and individual privacy.
In the past, the U.S, New Zealand, and several other western countries have had the right to search digital devices carried by passengers, but none have so far have insisted on a fine for not divulging the passwords to say one’s phone. In the event that there was suspicious information on the phone, the official would likely confiscate it from the individual.
While I personally wouldn’t mind someone looking at my phone (because I hardly have much except landscape images), I do realize that many travelers have extremely private and confidential information on their phones. These could of course range from private pictures to trade secrets and really aren’t stuff that should be accessible to borders agents. While New Zealand estimates that only around 500 searches will occur (the 2017 figure), it might be a good idea to keep your most private data off your phone. The way I look at it at it is, your phone is probably not the most private or secure place to keep that sort of information anyway.
The problem with this entire issue is “reasonable suspicion” and what that really entails. The definition as it stands right now is that the border officials can search one’s possessions at will or basically if they are interested in spending the time to sift through your things.
So essentially the question is: do customs agents know where to draw the line between “reasonable suspicion” and unfounded fascination with an individual? While I may think they do for the most part, I’m sure there are many instances to the contrary. And this may yet again be a YMMV issue.
As for the fine, I suppose it would be a non issue for business travelers because the company may foot the bill for not revealing the password. This would essentially get the employee off the hook for divulging trade secrets and score some revenue for the government. Hopefully this won’t really affect most travelers.