A man has accused the Australian Border Force (ABF) of confiscating and scanning his phone, which feels like supremely fucked-slash-scary invasion of privacy and potential exploitation of power. The thought of someone looking at my private Safari window alone is bringing me out in nervous hives.
The traveller, James, posted a Reddit thread about the situation, which happened after he and his partner returned home from a holiday in Fiji.
In the thread James said that he and his partner went through baggage claim and gave their cards to the customs officer, who asked the couple to come with her.
“We were led away to the bag inspection area (straight out of a scene in one of those border protection reality shows),” he wrote.
Now that is the sort of visual storytelling I appreciate. James said they were asked to empty their pockets and told that they were “required” to hand over their mobile phone passwords. The security guard then wrote down their passwords on a piece of paper.
His tale then alleges that another officer took the phones into a seperate room, out of sight of the couple, and held on to them for half an hour. He also said that while their bags were searched, the search seemed “cursory”.
“They did not pull all the contents out of our backpacks (if we had a kilo of heroin in the bottom of one of our backpacks, they wouldn’t have found it).
“They just seemed to be very keen to inspect/scan our phones. They were not even interested in our laptops (which we both had in case we got stranded in Fiji), which they just set aside while they searched through our suitcase.”
James described the situation as “extremely traumatic” and an “absolute abuse of that power”.
He also said that he couldn’t think of any reason why they would’ve been singled out by customs officers, other than checking the ‘yes’ box on the customs form to having been in contact with wild animals.
In a statement given to The Guardian, a spokesperson for the ABF said that people’s phones can be searched under certain circumstances: “if they suspect the person may be of interest for immigration, customs, biosecurity, health, law-enforcement or national security reasons”.
“The ABF exercises these powers in order to protect the Australian community from harm and deliver upon its mission to protect Australia’s border and enable legitimate travel and trade. Information seized from passengers phones has contributed to the success of many domestic law enforcement operations targeting illegal activities”.
The situation raises some serious questions about people’s right to privacy at the border, and the lack of justification security and border enforcers are required to give for accessing people’s data.
As James points out in his story, he and his partner were both Australian citizens returning from a holiday and had no previous criminal records.
So, what could happen to people who fall in to that category or who don’t have the protections of citizenship?
In the Reddit thread, he said there there was a serious lack of transparency in the process and he doesn’t know what was accessed by security. He also listed all of the potentially sensitive information they could have seen: years of photos, over a decade of Gmail history, all SMS and WhatsApp messages, work emails or a calendar, saved logins for sites, bank details and contacts.
Our phones store an incredible — and frankly, frightening — amount of data about ourselves and our loved ones.
James also raised questions about where the data goes: where it is stored, who can access it, whether it’s shared with the government or how long it’s held for.
Speaking to The Guardian, he said the couple were told nothing.
“Who knows what they’re taking out of it? With your phone and your passcode they have everything, access to your entire email history, saved passwords, banking, Medicare, myGov. There’s just so much scope.”
Back in 2019, the ABF told the ABC that the Customs Act gives it significant power.
“Under Section 186 of the Customs Act 1901, Australian Border Force officers have the power to examine all goods at the border, including electronic documents and photos on mobile phones and other personal electronic devices.
“If an individual refuses to comply with a request for an examination of their electronic device, that device may be held until the ABF is satisfied that the item does not present a risk to the border.”
Significantly, we also have evidence that that power has historically been abused.
Back in 2016, a man sued the government after an ABF officer confiscated his phone and sent texts from it. In his statement of claim, he said he’d been held for almost four hours by officer who didn’t have any reasonable grounds to suspect that he had committed an offence.
The ABF apologised to the man and said the officer broke its code of conduct, according to a document released via FOI.
So, as if we needed more evidence that Australia’s policies around borders are colossally fucked, now we can add invasion of your digital privacy to the list!