Tech Liberty NZ Defending civil liberties in the digital age

Why did Customs seize this laptop?

Posted on March 8, 2010

[This post was prompted by contact from a person who had a laptop seized. Since original publication they have asked for their comments to be removed.]

We recently asked Customs whether they were able to do this and they replied that they could under the Customs and Excise Act (1996).

Looking for information

We'd like to find out more about what Customs are doing in this area. In particular we'd like to know what they're looking for, whether they're targeting anyone in particular, and what they do with the systems and data they seize.

Please contact us if this has happened to you or anyone you know. Please include as much detail as possible. We promise to respect your anonymity.

Posted by Thomas Beagle

Comments (8) Trackbacks (0)
  1. I can see why they can do this, but its pretty bloody intrusive, and raises serious civil liberties and privacy concerns. its the equivalent of being able to kick in your door and take all the books in your house – and they shouldn’t be able to do that without serious cause and a warrant.

  2. And while we’re at it: they can just image the data, so what’s the justification for retaining the physical device for any longer than is necessary for that?

  3. Idiot/Savant – not just your books but all of your personal papers, photos, videos, etc.

    Two of the scenarios that worry me:

    1. “Sir, can you show me the license for these MP3 music files on your computer?”

    2. “Sir, we’ve found some photos of an unclothed girl toddler at the beach. We’ve contacted CYFS and they’ll be taking your daughter into custody for her own protection.”

  4. Encrypt, encrypt, encrypt.

    TrueCrypt for the win.

  5. Mattp – well, that’s the interesting point. I believe Customs can force you to unlock suitcases and the like, so can they force you to decrypt files? And what’s the penalty if you refuse? And what if you don’t have the key?

    Of course, if you really wanted to smuggle data you wouldn’t carry it on you when there’s that whole world-spanning network thing that you could use instead.

  6. And what of steganography, or even just obfuscated OTP encryption (such as text within cricket match commentaries). \Sir, this text does not mean what you say that it means.\

    Eventually, one could imagine that the use or possession of ‘potentially encrypted’ files becomes illegal, unless matching private keys are held in escrow by a central authority. Oh what a wonderful world.

  7. In the UK it is a crime of up to two years imprisonment for failing to supply passwords or encryption keys to access computers or data that you possess.

    A combination of terrorism and child pornography has justified this remarkable ability to effectively ask people to provide access to that which might incriminate themselves. The difference between that and a warrant to enter your private property is that a warrant doesn’t require you to provide a key, the authorities can gain access. What this now presents is effectively a thoughtcrime.

  8. One hears most about laptops seizures in the US. However, my own laptop was seized twice by Canada for “suspect prohibited pornography”. Of course, this was pure harassment. In the first instance, it took four months for its return to me in Thailand and Thai Customs expected me to pay duty and VAT on my own computer (with Thai keyboard!). In the second, it took Canada only three months to return my laptop to Thailand. However, they stated the regs had changed and I now needed to pay my own shipping (+duty and VAT again!). I complained bitterly and shipping was eventually covered.

    Due to these seizures, I made many suggestions to the minister involved such as creating data dumps at each inspection station to avoid inconveniencing the traveller.

    Customs replied that I would have to file an official information request in order for them to answer my questions about just how many laptops are seized each year and how many of these seizures result in criminal charges.

    CJ Hinke
    Freedom Against Censorship Thailand (FACT)


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