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Customs confiscated and scanned our mobile phones in Sydney

January 14, 2022 Airport, Headline News 1 Comment

The following alarming account was posted on Reddit this week by a traveller who flew back to Australia after a 10-day holiday in Fiji, landing at Sydney Airport.

This is the traveller’s account, verbatim on Reddit, with link to original at the end.

My partner (F/36/Accountant) and I (M/44/Software Dev) landed in Sydney a couple of days ago, back from a 10-day holiday in Fiji.

Due to bad weather conditions, our return flight was delayed by 30 hours, so we ended up spending 30 hours in Nadi airport waiting to come home. We finally landed in Sydney late in the evening and gee wasn’t it wonderful to be home!

After going through the immigration check we waited at the carousel for our suitcase, dreaming of the soft bed we would soon be lying in (we only managed a few hours sleep during the long wait in Nadi airport, so we were both extremely exhausted when we landed).

Once we grabbed our suitcase, we headed toward the exit and handed our arrival cards to the customs officer, and this is where things began to go pear shaped. The customs lady said “I need you to follow me”, and we were led away to the bag inspection area (straight out of a scene in one of those border protection reality shows).

When we arrived at the bag inspection area, we were asked to empty our pockets so we did this (including our phones). She then asked the standard stuff – did you pack your bags, are you aware of the contents etc. Then she said “you are required to provide the passcodes for your mobile phones”.

Normally I would have argued at this point, but we were so tired, it was easier just to comply. So we recited our passcodes and she wrote them on a piece of paper.

She then summoned another officer who came over and took our phones away, out of sight, to another room. Presumably they hooked them up to some kind of machine to inspect them.

They then proceeded to search our bags, but it seemed very 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.

Once she finished the half-assed inspection of our bags, we then had to sit waiting for our phones to be returned. After about 30 mins, they finally came back, handed our phones to us and said we were OK to leave.

Needless to say, the whole experience was extremely traumatic for both of us (but especially my partner). I understand that customs need to have the ability to search peoples phones in certain circumstances, but this is an absolute abuse of that power. I would never expect that kind of treatment returning to my home country after a trip abroad.

I have racked my brain trying to figure out why we were singled out. We are both Australian Citizens with no criminal records, no associations with any criminals/religious groups/gangs/political groups. We are just a normal couple who wanted a romantic getaway from all the covid chaos in Sydney. The only unusual thing we ticked on the arrival form was the “yes” box for the question about being in contact with farm animals or wilderness areas.

The major problem I have with this is the massive violation of our privacy and the lack of transparency in the process. What exactly did they take from my phone? Could be any/all of the following:

  • Photos going back for many years
  • My entire Gmail history going back 15 odd years (and any other associated google services – calendar apointments, keep notes, google drive files)
  • My work emails/calendar
  • Saved logins/passwords for various websites (including bank account and other financial logins)
  • Every Whatsapp/SMS conversation I have ever had
  • Contact list
  • Potentially they could even have rooted the phone or installed spyware (probably a bit far-fetched in the 30 min window, but not impossible)

And what happens to this data?

  • How is is stored?
  • Who has access to it?
  • Is it shared with any other government organisations?
  • Is there a retention policy, or does it live in their system forever?

I also think that if they are to inspect your phone, it should be done in front of you, the same way they have to inspect your bags in front of you. The fact they perform the inspection behind closed doors, leaves open the possibility of all sorts of abuses of power. They could add/modify things on your phone and you would have no way of countering that.

It turns out Australian Border Force are allowed to arbitrarily exercise this power without any kind of oversight and there is no reporting of actual numbers of how many of these invasive searched are conducted.

There is an article here that summarises the situation up nicely: https://www.crikey.com.au/2019/06/24/australia-border-privacy-loophole/ – with the main point being “its officers don’t need warrants or even reasonable suspicion. Everything is fair game for anyone who passes through immigration.”

This experience makes me hesitant to ever go overseas again, however if I do, I will back everything up to the cloud before I take off, and then factory reset my phone on the return flight.

I am going to write a letter to my federal member about this experience – this is not the kind of thing that should be allowed to happen in a free and democratic country. There needs to be way more transparency in this process and ABF should not have arbitrary power to delve into the innermost private lives that our mobile phones now contain without reasonable suspicion of wrongdoing (especially in the case of returning Australian Citizens).

Sorry for the long rant, and thanks if you made it all the way to the end!

=================================================================================================

That’s the end of the Reddit post, which you can read in the original on this link. It’s worth looking at the original to peruse the avalanche of comments it provoked. Some comments are thought-provoking; others are funny; a few are both. The Crikey.com.au story linked to the Reddit post is also worth reading.

 

Edited by Peter Needham

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John Alwyn-Jones
John Alwyn-Jones(@alwyn-jones)
January 14, 2022 1:44 pm

What did the Customs say about this?

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