Australian Border Force searched phones of 10,000 travellers in past two years, data shows

Australian Border Force searched phones of 10,000 travellers in past two years, data shows ABF officers routinely ask travellers to provide phone passwords and most do despite there being no legal requirement to comply.

Australian border force officers obtained passcodes to the devices of almost 10,000 people in the past two years, new data obtained by Guardian Australia reveals, with most people who were ordered to hand over their phones willingly providing the passcode.

Data provided to Guardian Australia under freedom of information laws show that since Australia’s borders reopened following easing of Covid-19 restrictions phone searches rebounded as the number of travellers increased. There were 2,087 searches in the 2021-2022 financial year, 5,065 in 2022-23, and 4,422 in the period between 1 July 2023 and 31 March 2024.

Related:Australian man says border force made him hand over phone passcode by threatening to keep device indefinitely

The department data reveals that close to 94% of the time people freely revealed their phone passcode to officers, despite there being no legal requirement to do so. The ABF data shows less than 800 people had their devices “referred for further examination due to technical reasons or individual’s refusal to provide access”.

About one in four people who were stopped at the border had some data copied from their devices – 590 in 2021-22, 1,139 in 2022-23, and 1,447 in the current financial year.

There were 3.3 million arrivals or departures at Australia’s borders in March 2024 alone.

Officers routinely ask travellers to provide their passcode or password to devices so they can be examined, but they do not have the power to compel passengers to hand over their passcodes, the ABF has explained to the Australian Senate and in guidebooks provided to officers.

There is no limit on how long the devices can be held but the agency said the policy was to keep devices for no longer than 14 days unless it took longer to examine them.

Guardian Australia reported in May that one man, Chris*, was stopped three times in a year upon returning to Australia from the United States on a visit to see family. He described the behaviour as highly invasive and unnecessary harassment. During the most recent search, he said the threat of seizing the device was used to attempt to compel him to hand over his passcode. He was also asked to hand over the master password for his password manager but he refused. He said he was allowed to leave after an hour, but border force retained a USB drive.

Related:Border force apologises for failing to prevent ‘misconduct’ after reports found bullying and harassment

Since lodging a complaint with the department over his treatment, the drive has been sent back, Guardian Australia understands. Chris said he received a standard response from the department, and would not use the USB drive again.

An ABF spokesperson said last month movements across the border were screened using a range of intelligence, targeting and profile techniques.

The agency does not provide information on the success rate for searches, but has said a phone would only be seized where officers suspected it had “special forfeited goods” such as “illegal pornography, terrorism-related material and media that has been, or would be, refused classification”.

In a recent NSW district court judgment, a 39-year-old Maclean man, James Dean Apps, was sentenced to two years and six months in jail after Border Force officers discovered hundreds of images of child abuse material on his device. The judgment said Apps provided his passcode to his phone at the border during what was described as a “routine baggage examination” after returning from the Philippines in June last year.

Senior lawyer for the Human Rights Law Centre, Kieran Pender, said last month more transparency was required of how the powers were used. He raised concerns about how it could be applied to journalists, whistleblowers, and lawyers where confidentiality safeguards exist.

“The Human Rights Law Centre has consistently raised concerns around the lack of transparency, safeguards and oversight of ABF’s extraordinary powers to seize electronic devices at borders,” he said. “We are particularly concerned at ABF’s apparent use of coercive tactics to get around its lack of lawful power to compel passwords from travellers.”

Pender said the practices must be changed so the ABF is not exceeding its lawful authority.

*Name changed for privacy

  • https://www.msn.com/en-au/news/australia/australian-border-force-searched-phones-of-10-000-travellers-in-past-two-years-data-shows/ar-BB1o0dTP

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