Australian Border Force officers have sifted through the contents of more than 40,000 mobile devices at the border without a warrant over the last five years, new data has revealed.
On Thursday, the Australian tech news site ITNews revealed that border force officers had undertaken more than 41,410 warrantless device searches between 2017 and 2021, under a broad set of search powers that allow officers to search a traveller’s phone for any number of reasons.
Those same powers enable the agency to copy data from a mobile device seized as part of a search undertaken at the Australian border, and even hold the device for a period of up to 14 days.
The practice is totally legal in Australia under the Customs Act, and doesn’t require officers to notify a targeted traveller of their rights, which more often than not empower them to politely decline a search.
“There are many instances under which we may examine a traveller’s device,” a spokesperson for the Australian Border Force said. “For example, visa-related issues, counter-terrorism and prohibited items.”
Answering questions in the Senate earlier this year, a Border Force spokesperson said there is no “legal compulsion” for travellers to comply with the searches, but that refusing to do so could see a border agent consider them a “risk to the border” and hold the suspected device for even longer.
At the time, Greens Senate whip Nick McKim—then the party’s digital rights spokesperson—said the agency should be required to get a warrant before searching people’s devices, as is the case for other law enforcement agencies around the country.
“It’s generally the requirement in Australia, and it should be no different at the border,” McKim said.
“Australia’s privacy protections need considerable strengthening so people’s phones aren’t examined on a hunch, or confiscated under the shadow of being referred to other authorities,” he said.
The data, obtained under Australia’s Freedom of Information Act, shows that only the searches conducted between May 2020 and the end of last year noted what type of device was searched at the border.
As such, mobile phone searches only came to account for 951 of the total searches disclosed, and took place over that same period. The remaining 40,459 searches undertaken through the full five-year period could have been for scores of different device types, including phones, but also computers and portable hard drives.
The dataset does not account for searches or seizures where a traveller refused to handover their password to a border official. In theory, this number could be relatively low, given that most travellers wouldn’t be aware that they can turn down an official’s request.
According to a procedural instruction manual for border officers, obtained by the Guardian, border force agents have “limited” powers to query the content on a traveller’s phone, and “must not suggest” that people questioned by them are “compelled to respond”.
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