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Australian Border Force under scrutiny over data collection

It has been revealed that the Australian Border Force (ABF) may have potentially searched over 40,000 devices from foreign travellers in the last five years.

The ABF acts as the first point of contact for travellers entering into Australia. ABF inspections are primarily done for national security purposes. Amongst their examinations, the ABF can search travellers’ devices without a warrant when travellers visit or return to Australia via customs. This means that ABF can request travellers to disclose their phone passwords and passcodes.

This issue was brought to light in January 2022 and questioned closely before the Senate in April 2022. The ABF acknowledged that there was no legal obligation for travellers to disclose passcodes, although, if anyone refused to comply with the request the ABF could consider the traveller as a “risk to the border” and seize any suspected devices for further investigation. Any confiscated devices were held for up to 14 days, especially if the ABF suspected that “special forfeited goods” were stored on the phone, such as terrorist-related content. These devices were intensely scanned, and the owner of the device was not permitted to be present in the examination. The ABF even went to the extent of removing laptop batteries, removing SIM cards, and putting phones in flight mode.

It was later revealed that the internal instruction manual for device searches by the ABF under freedom of information legislation is extremely limited. ABF officers are not permitted to demand travellers’ hand over devices or suggest consequences for non-compliance. The ABF also has limited powers in extracting and copying data off devices.

The Human Rights Law Centre commented on these acts as an extremely intrusive form of surveillance with a glaring lack of transparency. The Human Rights Law Centre is calling upon the new Labor government to review the ABF practices to protect all individuals entering Australia.

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