Border agents searched more than 40,000 devices, including telephones, at the border in five years, new data shows.
A request for freedom of information by technical news site ITnews revealed agents had searched phones, computers and other devices at the border 41,410 times between 2017 and the end of 2021. That figure included 951 phones between May 2020 and the end of 2021.
Guardian Australia in January first reported the practice where border agents can examine people’s devices without a warrant when they visit Australia or return through customs.
In practice, this meant asking travelers to provide their passcode or password to devices so they can be verified.
in April, border force told the Senate there was no legal requirement for people to hand over their access codes, but if a person refused to comply with the request and a Border Patrol officer believed there was “a risk to the border”, then Border Patrol could confiscate the device for further research .
There is no limit to how long the devices can be kept, but the agency said the policy was to keep devices for no more than 14 days unless it took longer to examine them.
Border Patrol said a phone would only be seized if officers suspected it had “special forfeited goods”, such as “illegal pornography, terrorism-related material and media that has been or will be denied classification”.
Guardian Australia has a procedural guide for device search by Border Patrol officers under freedom of information, showing that “powers are limited” to search the contents of a device or request a passcode, and officers “should not suggest that people be compelled to respond” if not within the powers fall.
To extract data from the phone for investigation, agents use a special workstation in a separate room with the necessary tools, including software to “scan files for the presence of a person’s skin color and key keywords.” Border Patrol said it was being used to find child exploitation material. ABF uses software from MSAB, Cellebrite and Grayshift.
The policy document states that the owner of the device may only access the device after an officer has completed the investigation. That means putting mobile devices into airplane mode and removing their SIM cards, and laptops removing the batteries if possible, rather than just turning it off.
It also suggests that for Apple iPhones whose passcode is unknown, agents are considering holding each owner’s computer.
“It may be possible to examine a locked Apple mobile device with an accompanying computer, but this investigation should only be conducted by Digital Forensics,” the document states.
The document carefully states that while officers have limited authority to copy anything from the devices, extracting the data from the device is not considered copying. However, once data is moved to a storage device other than that extraction, it is considered a copy. If the copy was made without identifying the reason why it is needed under the Customs Actit would be considered illegal.
Kieran Pender, a senior attorney at the Human Rights Law Center, said getting someone’s phone is “a particularly intrusive form of surveillance” and that the lack of transparency about why it might be searched was “alarming”.
“The lack of safeguards is worrying; there are apparently no policies or procedures to stop border authorities from searching a journalist or lawyer’s phone, despite it being potentially illegal,” he said.
“There is also a high risk of individuals being forced to hand over passwords, despite Border Police having no authority to enforce it.
“Border Power needs to be more transparent about the use of these extraordinary powers and the law needs to be amended to enshrine robust safeguards and oversight. The Human Rights Law Center is calling on the new Australian government to review this Border Force practice and ensure adequate safeguards are in place.”