Syrian-born NZ citizens forced by NZ Customs to give device & social media passwords

Andrea Vance at 1News reports that Syrian-born Kiwis are being held up when re-entering New Zealand:

1 News has talked to a number of individuals who have been detained at Auckland airport, often for hours at a time. They've been forced to hand over their phones and laptops – and ordered to surrender passwords to social media accounts.

The article goes on to describe the account of Samer Soud who says that he has been stopped and detained six times since 2015 after visiting his son in Sydney.

Mr Soud says it's an "awful feeling" when officers go through their belongings. "I don't mind them looking at anything because I've got nothing to hide…[but] it's frustrating me and it's a degrading really, you become humiliated and they're looking through your private stuff, you know – especially you have some memories, photos you don't want anyone else to see, you know. And my wife's wardrobe, you know, all of private stuff there and they go through everything in detail."

Phones and Passwords

We note that Customs seems to be pressuring these people into giving up their phone passwords and the passwords to social media apps. "If you say no they tell you – in the beginning – don't make it hard on yourself." 

Customs currently do not have the power to force people to provide access to phones. Using threats to force people into compliance should be unacceptable.

This will all change when the Customs and Excise Bill is passed, as it does give Customs powers to demand passwords and punish those who refuse. Of course, if someone really did have evidence of serious crimes on their phone, the penalty of up to $5000 would not be enough to force them to hand over their passwords. We wrote more about some of the shortcomings of this part of the Bill


We're worried that this is unreasonable discrimination based solely on ethnic origin or religious belief, something that is both illegal under New Zealand law and unacceptable in a decent society.

The 1News article quotes Customs as saying that it doesn't profile people based on religion or belief, but doesn't mention national origin. 


We note that these are New Zealanders entering their own country and that the NZ Bill of Rights gives citizens the right to enter New Zealand.

Furthermore, Customs are not the Police or the SIS. If there really are good reasons to suspect the people described in the article of being a threat to New Zealand, perhaps this investigation should be left to the Police and SIS – of course, they would have to show due cause and get a warrant to do what Customs can do on a whim.

If we are going to give Customs these sorts of powers, do we need more protections to ensure that they are not being used inappropriately? For example, is there a point at which Customs should be obliged to allow access to legal advice? 

Finally, we can't help wondering where this is coming from – this level of interrogation seems unreasonable and inspired by US-levels of paranoia. There is no evidence that we need it here.