Australian Border Force searched more than 40,000 mobile devices in five years, data shows | Technology

Border Force agents have searched more than 40,000 devices, including phones, at the border in five years, new data reveals.

A Freedom of Information request from technology news site ITnews found that officers 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 first reported in January the practice that Border Force officers can examine people’s devices without a warrant when visiting or returning to Australia through customs.

In practice, this has involved asking travelers to provide their passcode or password to devices so that they can be examined.

In April, Border Force told the Senate that 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 Force agent considered that there was “a risk to the border”, so the border force could seize the device for further examination.

There is no limit on how long devices can be kept, but the agency said the policy is not to keep devices longer than 14 days unless it takes longer to review them.

Border Force said a phone would only be seized if officers suspected it contained “special confiscated assets” such as “illegal pornography, terrorism-related material and media that have been or would be withheld from the classification”.

Guardian Australia has obtained a procedural instruction manual for device searches by Border Force officers under Freedom of Information which reveals ‘limited powers’ to interrogate the contents of a device or request a password, and officers “must not suggest that people are compelled to respond” if not within authority.

To extract data from the phone for examination, officers will use a dedicated workstation in a separate room that has the necessary tools, including software to “scan files to detect the presence of a person’s complexion.” and keywords of interest”. Border Force said this was used to find child exploitation material. ABF uses software provided by MSAB, Cellebrite and Grayshift.

The policy document reveals that the device owner should not be allowed access to the device until an officer completes the examination. This means mobile devices should be put into airplane mode and their SIM card removed, and laptops should have batteries removed if possible, rather than simply turned off.

It also suggests that for Apple iPhones with an unknown passcode, officers are considering detaining any computer the owner has.

“It may be possible to examine a locked Apple mobile device using an associated computer, but such examination should only be performed by Digital Forensics,” the document states.

The document is careful to state that agents have limited powers to copy anything from devices, but extracting data from the device is not considered copying. However, once data is moved to a different storage device than this fetch, it is considered a copy. If the copy was made without indicating why it is required under the Customs Act, it would be considered illegal.

Kieran Pender, senior lawyer at the Human Rights Law Centre, said obtaining someone’s phone is “a particularly intrusive form of surveillance” and the lack of transparency about why they might be searched was “alarming “.

“The lack of safeguards is worrying; there appears to be no policy or procedure in place to prevent border officials from searching a reporter’s or lawyer’s phone, although this is potentially illegal,” he said.

“There is also a high risk that individuals will be coerced into handing over passwords, although border forces have no power to compel them.

“The Border Force needs to be more transparent about the use of these extraordinary powers and the law needs to be changed to incorporate strong safeguards and oversight. The Human Rights Law Center is calling on the new Australian government to review this practice by Border Force and ensure adequate safeguards are in place.

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