Ministers of law enforcement agencies will receive many requests for legislated powers to make their job easier. Ministers should look at all such requests and ask themselves two questions: is this an invasion of people's privacy or human rights? And if so, is it really necessary? Customs Minister Nicky Wagner needs to ask those questions before acting on a request from Customs for the power to demand computer passwords.
Is it really necessary to look at the contents of personal computers at the country's borders? Clearly Customs is already doing so, because a discussion paper proposing this and other changes to its act says it is relatively uncommon for people to refuse to provide their password or encryption key when asked. But it adds, "the number who refuse may increase as technology continues to develop". That does not amount to a need for such intrusive power, not yet and maybe never.
Ms Wagner should instead find out how often people are already being asked to give officers access to their computer as they enter or leave the country, and how often this has confirmed Customs' suspicion that the computers contain evidence of criminal offending? If the travellers have already given the police grounds for suspicion it seems unlikely that they need to be stopped at the border. That might be merely the easiest place to catch them with their computer. Convenience is not a good reason to encroach on a civil liberty. What is convenient for law enforcement can become highly inconvenient for innocent people, not only those obliged to open their files but those waiting in the queue. Airport arrival procedures can be slow and pernickety enough without Customs searching the contents of laptops, iPads and smartphones.
Customs seems to be asking for a larger brief. Besides extending its powers of search it wants to add to the list of imported goods it can track to their delivery in New Zealand. In addition to weapons and drugs the discussion paper suggests objectionable publications in printed or DVD form, ATM and credit car skimming devices, and counterfeit money. It is surprising these items are not already on the list of controlled deliveries that Customs can track. Likewise there seems no harm in a request in the discussion paper for the power to force passengers to empty their pockets, without the officer needing reasonable suspicion they are carrying an illegal or controlled item. People are so accustomed to turning out their pockets for airline boarding security these days that a request to do so on arrival should not offend anybody's sense of rights and dignity.
But the computer is a new frontier for Customs. The discussion paper should prompt a hefty volume of responses, most of them sent from smartphones. Privacy may be an elusive concept for data sent or kept by computer but passwords and encryption keys are its basic elements. Let people refuse requests for their password at the border and let Customs pass on its suspicions to the police. They can do the intrusion at a more suitable time and place if really necessary.