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'Snowden' backpacker gets his phone, iPad, laptop back from Customs

Dec 14: Customs tells NBR that backpacker Sam Blackman says Customs has returned his smartphone, iPad, laptop and external hard drive, taken from him without explanation as he entered the country earlier this week.

The Aucklander, returning home for a month over Christmas, told his Twitter followers that Customs told him there was nothing of interest on the devices.

He had given Customs his passwords without seeking legal advice, he said, "because I have nothing to hide."

By Mr Blackman's account, Customs told him the seizure had nothing to do with his attending a meeting about exiled NSA contractor Edward Snowden in London.

Rather, it was because "my name on a broadband account at a student flat 6+ years ago and someone on that WiFi visited a dodgy site."

He did immediately return an NBR request for comment.

Customs external relations manager Helen Keyes earlier offered NBR the background explanation that, "Customs uses an intelligence and risk based approach at the border. Passengers considered high risk will receive attention, while legitimate travellers categorised as low-risk can enter and leave New Zealand with a lighter ‘touch’.  Under Section 151 of the Act Goods are able to be detained for examination if it is suspected they contain evidence of offences against the Act."

Asked if Customs had any issue with any of the content discovered on Mr Blackman's devices, Ms Keyes replied "No."

Customs on backpacker stripped of iPad, smartphone, laptop - no gear taken unless evidence law broken

Dec 12: Earlier today, the NZ Herald revealed law graduate Sam Blackman had two smartphones, an iPad, an external hard drive and laptop confiscated as he went through Customs at Auckland Airport. A Customs Officer also demanded passwords to each device.

Mr Blackman, a 27-year-old law graduate returning home for Christmas, told the paper he had no idea why the gadgets - and all of his attendant personal data - were confiscated.

He speculated it was because of his attendance - and tweeting - of a London meeting on mass surveillance sparked by the Snowden revelations, he said.

NBR offered Customs the chance to tell its side of the story.

Why was Mr Blackman's gear seized?

"Goods are able to be detained for examination if it is suspected they are, or they contain evidence of offences against the Customs and Excise Act 1996. Once the examination is completed goods are either released back to the passenger or formally seized," Customs external relations manager Helen Keyes told NBR via email.

"Items are not seized if they do not contain evidence of an offense against the Act."

So how exactly can a Customs Officer ascertain that a password-protected smartphone, laptop or iPad could contains evidence of an offence against the Act?

And if the Officer somehow could ascertain that, why was the suspect let go?

Ms Keyes says Customs does not comment on individual cases.

Beyond that, we'll just have to wait for an upcoming episode of Border Patrol.

More by Chris Keall

Comments and questions

This is serious stuff which I hope Mr Keall will continue to pursue.
I approve of the customs action if there is a hint of terrorism, treason or kiddy fiddling etc, but if its a political inspired gesture NZ customs need reaming. Remember its the customs guys who trashed the competitor products of Sanitarium, so they have to swap the jack boots for a bit more intelligent softly softly if they want our continued respect.

Yes, it does sound like a politically motivated stitch-up. Ask Keys perhaps. It would have come from the top. How does one protect one's gear from having Custom's or their 'agents' loading something dodgy? How do you fight that?

Customs needs to come clean even if they are innocent to dispell the stench of abuse of the Public trust that is hanging around them now. Is being annoying to the odious Americans now enough to get NZ departments to abuse NZ citizens in the hope of ingratiation with the Western World's new Stasi? Come on customs, show that we are wrong.

Police State ... show us your papers or else!

... nuff said.

"Customs told him the seizure had nothing to do with his attending a meeting about exiled NSA contractor Edward Snowden in London."

Yeah right!

In addition, there is no way Mr Blackman can trust his electronic devices when they are returned. "Thanks NZ customs, you just made my devices worthless!"

Who oversees the Customs inspection of devices? Do they image the drives and pass the data to other agencies? Is there any protection against abuse and overreach with respect to a citizens private information?

It would be interesting to know if other attendees of the London meeting were also relieved of their electronic goods when they returned home or does this have the hallmarks of another Kim Dot Com situation?

Customs had the dodgiest reputation of all government departments when I was a government drone. I see not much has changed.

More disturbing is that Customs is undoubtedly just doing what it was told. This is a critical issue.

1. Who told Customs to target this man, and why?

2. How is the information being passed back and forth like this? (More spying and information sharing on Kiwis?)

It's also absolutely ridiculous that there is no expectation of privacy. Have Customs gone through his personal email and web chats?

Perhaps he should be compensated with new hardware now that he has no reasonable expectation that his own has not been tampered with in privacy-compromising ways.

Did he send this tweet to the Customs service or did they get it from Waihopai?

A minor point Chris - seems you are confusing 'detained' and 'seized'. Customs have 'detained' the devices because they suspect something (however spurious this might be) and will only 'seize' them if there is 'evidence of an offence'.

Weasel words don't mask the facts. They were seized.

Agree with Alan, the devices were removed from the owner's custody and anything dodgy could have happened to them whilst in Custom's 'care'.

Customs like to flex their muscle at the border, for no other reason to show who's boss. Very poor "intelligence" was demonstrated on this occasion.

Now that was an expensive little taxpayer funded caper by NZ Customs.
It does not bode well at all for the many young students who now travel extensively and who might have been a party to shared internet over the last few years,
I can only guess the tsunami or at least mountain of detained electronic goods needing a week long each, forensic groping as the kids come home for xmas, must be the new policy.
A very expensive fishing exercise indeed it now appears is all it was and anyone with an ounce of paranoia will not trust the NZ Customs forensic so called experts to have not put on some hidden spyware or planted something for their Aussie counterparts to discover...just in case.
1984 Orwell anyone?

He's not the first person this has happened to. I've had my laptop detained for examination after being routinely stopped. Just that I didn't go bleating to the media.

You're the man bob. Just let them do what they like and don't ask questions like a good Kiwi bloke, is that the message? What's the big deal - it's just a small arbitrary exercise of state power. Civil liberties are for whingers right?

No , I got my lawyer onto it.

No doubt all the data from his devices has been copied for future reference, including all passwords for email etc. he needs to wipe those devices clean and start over with new passwords for everything.

Looks like some people have watched a few too many movies and read a few too many conspricacy theories.

Give me a break.
Why should I tolerate some smelly armpit ferretting through my drawers even if I believe there is nothing illegal there. They had better have a damned good reason and a warrant for my right of privacy to take such an affront.
If you disagree, how about for starters sharing with me and my pals all your credit card and bank account statements for the last decade for us to peruse ?

"Everyone is guilty of something or has something to conceal. All one has to do is look hard enough to find what it is."

This guy should be applying for a judicial review of the seizure of his personal possesions.

He is lucky to get it back and still in working order