NZ Customs Seizes Electronics – a full enquiry please

In the first week of January I’m leaving a Software Engineering gig for a US defense contractor to move to New Zealand.

It’s great that New Zealand attracts high talented people from across the world, and we certainly need more software engineers from local and offshore sources.

Due to the expense of shipping, my wife and I are only bringing what we can carry, and we’ve taken special care to fit as much of our lives as possible into our electronic devices.

It’s wonderful that we can digitise our possessions, carry a track record of our life online and digitally hold our digital music, book and movie collections.

However NZ Herald reported on Thursday this week that New Zealand citizen Samuel Blackman, had “all of his personal electronic items seized by NZ Customs.” Blackman believes this occurred because he attended a London meeting on mass surveillance. NZ Customs subsequently said that they had seized the equipment (returned on Friday afternoon) because of a “website accessed from a shared internet connection at a student flat in 2007“. That’s a long time ago, and if the website in question really was that disturbing then we have to ask why authorities (which authorities?) tolerated the ensuring 6 years of not following up.

The quotes come from one benjamincburns on Hacker News, and while one person commenting on a news site is not a trend, he went on to say:

the only solution would be either to not go, or to not carry any devices at all…

We need to handle this with great caution as the values that bind us together and attract offshore visitors and business are at stake. I have three concerns and a suggestion.

  1. “Theft” of the devices: Once a computer, phone or hard drive is out of our hands, we have no control of the disposition of the contents, are unable to use the devices while they are gone and can never trust the devices again. I do trust our guys, but this is, for the affected party, roughly equivalent to theft and destruction of property.  Seizure of devices is a valid action by authorities, but should only be invoked with considerable cause, and with full investigation as follow-up if there is nothing found .
  2. Damage to New Zealand’s reputation: This is bad bad press for New Zealand, and detracts significantly from New Zealand’s reputation as a place that treats people fairly, where considerate rule of law prevails and where MPI and Customs officials focus on finding things like rooster testicles. While this incident (devices not roosters) should  only marginally affect our $24 billion tourism industry, I would argue that the resulting publicity will give pause to some considering tourist and business visits. Those rethinking visits will most likely be from the sector of people who read technology news and who coincidentally are often the investors in and drivers of the start-up economy. NZ Customs have a job to protect our borders, but their primary role is to provide a safe and efficient service to everyone while doing so. This action will make it harder for them to be trusted by visitors in the future.
  3. Lack of process: Borders are, by their nature, the places where we have the least rights, and border officials have essentially arbitrary powers to detain, remove or tax possessions, assert criminal charges and/or reject entry to a country. This incident has exposed that New Zealand may be asserting these powers beyond what is reasonably expected, and while one incident does not make a pattern, we need to make sure that the system remains fair and reasonable. I’m not convinced by the explanation offered by NZ Customs. Perhaps an investigation would find that every device owned by every person residing at the 2007 address has been checked each time they have gone through Customs, but it’s doubtful and even if so it’s a strange way to go about the business.

What Next?

New Zealand needs to confidently say to all approaching our borders, visitors and citizens alike, that they will be treated fairly and reasonably.

The lesson so far from the aftermath of the Kim Dotcom raid is that while we can make mistakes, but we can also learn from them, and that our political and judicial systems are strong and we can fix underlying issues.

So I’d like to see this incident followed up at a senior level, with Government oversight. We need an enquiry.

I’d like to make sure that any structural issues are identified and addressed, that people in these positions have the right training and procedures to fit the circumstances, and that taking electronic possessions away remains an extraordinarily rare event, at a level, say, where the person involved is also placed in custody.

The worst case would be for this to be ignored and then it happens again and again in the future. We can expect any future events to be reported internationally again, and each event will have an exponential effect on our inbound visits and economy.

Our New Zealand values are what bind us together. Let’s defend them.

About Lance Wiggs

@lancewiggs
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3 Responses to NZ Customs Seizes Electronics – a full enquiry please

  1. Ken Pedlar says:

    Government via police and others has had me under surveillance for four decades. I found this out from relatives in the military who are also private security contractors for many governments and heads of state today. I was told they wanted my R&D Company Inertialess Drive Corporation which was scoping the commercial applications of my single piece simultaneously dual axis spinning rotor closed because some anally retentive egg head bureaucrat in Wellington feared the outcomes from the R&D could have military applications.

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  2. Any attempt to have this sort of behaviour stopped will be met with a “what about the children” argument and quotes inferring they know something we don’t know. A few weeks back this happened to a friend of mine except he hasn’t got his stuff back (phone and tablet, he didn’t take his laptop as he knows he’s on a customs list and needs his laptop for work)… he also has packages from overseas opened regularly (records from ebay, books from amazon etc). I guess Customs wasn’t too happy that when they took him to court a few years back the judge threw out the case before Customs had finished presenting their story, and thought ongoing bullying was an appropriate response.

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