Data shows Australian border forces inspected more than 40,000 mobile devices in five years | technology

New data revealed that border guards officers have searched more than 40,000 devices, including phones, at the border in five years.

Freedom of Information Request by Technology news site ITnews The officers revealed that they searched phones, computers and other devices at the border 41,410 times between 2017 and the end of 2021. This number included 951 phones between May 2020 and the end of 2021.

Guardian Australia This practice was first reported in Januarywhere Border Force officers can check people’s devices without a warrant when they visit or return to Australia through customs.

In practice, this meant requiring travelers to provide their passcode or password to the machines so they could be scanned.

in April, Frontier Force told the Senate There is no legal obligation for people to hand over their passcodes, but if someone refuses to comply with the request and a Border Force officer considers there to be a “border danger,” the Border Force can seize the device for further examination.

There is no limit to how long devices can be kept, but the agency said the policy is to keep devices for no longer than 14 days, unless it takes longer to scan the device.

The border force said the phone would only be confiscated if officers suspected it contained “confiscated private goods” such as “illegal pornography, terrorism-related materials and media that have been or will be refused to be classified.”

Guardian Australia got a Procedural instruction manual for device searches by Border Force officers under Freedom of Information revealing that “powers are limited” to query device content or request a passcode, and officers must “not indicate that people have to respond,” if it is not within the powers.

To extract data from the phone for examination, officers will use a dedicated workstation in a separate room with required tools, including software to “scan files for a person’s skin tone and keywords of interest.” The Border Patrol Force said this was used to find child exploitation materials. ABF uses software provided by MSAB, Cellebrite, and Grayshift.

The policy document reveals that the device owner should not be allowed to access the device until the officer has finished checking. This means that mobile devices should be put on flight mode and their SIM card removed, and batteries in laptops should be removed if possible, rather than just shutting them down.

It also notes that for Apple iPhones where the passcode is not known, officers are considering keeping any computer owned by the owner.

The document states that “it may be possible to scan a locked Apple mobile device using a linked computer but such screening should only be performed by digital forensics.”

The document is careful to state that officers have limited powers to copy anything from devices, but extracting data from a device is not considered copying. However, once any data is transferred to a storage device different from this extraction, it is considered a copy. If the copy is made without specifying the reason for its need under Customs Lawwould be considered illegal.

Kieran Bender, a senior attorney at the Center for Human Rights Law, said obtaining someone’s phone was a “particularly intrusive form of surveillance” and the lack of transparency about why they were looking for it was “disturbing.”

“The lack of safeguards is worrying; there are no policies or procedures in place to prevent border authorities from searching the phone of a journalist or lawyer, although this may be illegal.”

“There is also a significant risk of individuals being forced to hand over passwords, even though border forces lack any authority to enforce this.

“The border force should be more transparent about the use of these extraordinary powers and the law should be changed to include strong safeguards and oversight. The Center for Human Rights Law is calling on the new Australian government to review these Border Force practices and ensure that adequate safeguards are in place.”