Taking to Reddit to share his experience with others, the traveler, James, says he’s worried that customs law allows border officials to force people to hand over phone access codes in the within their powers to examine the personal effects of persons at the border.
He says this should not happen in a free and democratic country.
“This experience makes me hesitant to return overseas, but if I do, I’ll save everything to the cloud before taking off, then factory reset my phone on the flight home,” he wrote on the forum, which has so far attracted more than 2,300 comments.
How it went
James explains that he and his partner have landed in Sydney for the past few days after a 10-day vacation in Fiji.
The couple handed their arrival cards to the customs officer, and that’s when he said things had started to go wrong.
The couple were led into the bag inspection area, where they were asked to empty their pockets, including phones. The customs officer then asked for the access codes for their mobile phones.
“Normally I would have argued at this point, but we were so tired it was just easier to comply. So, we recited our access codes and she wrote them down on a piece of paper,” said he wrote on Reddit.
Another officer then came and took their phones, out of sight to another room. A cursory search of the bags was carried out, while authorities showed no interest in their laptops, he said.
“They didn’t take all the contents of our backpacks out (if we had a kilo of heroin in the bottom of one of our backpacks, they wouldn’t have found it).”
“Once she finished the half-assed inspection of our bags, we then had to sit down while we waited for our phones to be returned.
“After about 30 minutes they finally came back, handed us our phones and said it was okay to leave,” he wrote on the forum.
“I would never expect this kind of treatment to come back to my home country after a trip abroad,” he wrote.
He racked his brains trying to figure out why they were chosen.
“We are just a normal couple who wanted a romantic getaway away from all the COVID chaos in Sydney. The only unusual thing we checked on the arrival form was the ‘yes’ box for the question about contact with farm animals or wild areas,” he wrote.
James is concerned about the “massive invasion of his privacy and the lack of transparency in the process”, saying it is unclear what they took from his phone.
These can be photos, work emails, Gmail history, calendar appointments, Google Drive files, logins or passwords for various websites including his bank account , his contact list or WhatsApp or SMS conversations.
He was also not told if a copy of the data was made, where it would be stored and for how long, and who would have access to it.
A common practice
The practice of taking people’s phones without explanation has been around for years.
He asks that phones be inspected in front of travelers, as are bags. There is no official report on the actual number of telephone searches carried out at borders each year.
“The fact that they are carrying out the inspection behind closed doors leaves open the possibility of all kinds of abuse of power. They could add/modify things on your phone and you would have no way to counter that,” he pointed out.
“There needs to be a lot more transparency in this process and ABF should not have the arbitrary power to delve into the most intimate private lives that our cell phones now contain without reasonable suspicion of wrongdoing (especially in the case returning Australian citizens).”
Digital privacy expert River Hart agrees that border agents searching the mobile phones of returning Australian passengers are inexcusable.
Hart, of digital freedom resource ProPrivacy, spoke out after hearing about the software developer‘s experience.
“Phones store incredibly personal data for the user – not just photos and videos, but years of text messages and emails, login credentials for banking and medical apps. person’s digital epicenter, and demanding access to it is a gross violation of privacy,” says Hart.
She points out that the Australian Border Force has given no clear reason for the intrusions – and has provided even less transparency on how individuals are screened, how many phones are searched or what happens to the data accessed.
“Given this complete lack of communication and courtesy, are travelers expected to believe that their identifiable and deeply personal information has not been copied into a database?”