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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.

Lance Wiggs is an independent consultant providing management, strategy, growth and valuation consulting to industrial, media and internet based businesses. He blogs at Lancewiggs.com

Comments and questions
17

I get the nagging feeling that there is some sort of deep state operating outside the law in NZ that tries to hide itself but is being exposed as it makes mistakes and more of its activites come into the light.

Well that will be the so-called "Five Eyes" network. The tentacles seems to run everywhere.

What is most disturbing here is if it indeed was a politically motivated action instigated by the policing arms of the State. The chilling effect, or the 'sending of a message' being the objective, using policing as a mechanism for political intimidation. The moral and ethical basis for these actions are highly suspect and on par with some of the least desirable anyone would want to see in a modern democracy.

I'm surprised more members of the legal fraternity and judiciary aren't coming out against this action. Perhaps they feel they have already lost the fight when the GCSB bill was ramrodded through against all other best advice?

This is the kind of rubbish, we can expect from our intrepid spy agencies: In this instance,alerting Customs to act at their behest as an instrument of intimidation against those whose actions displease the Government.

You have to remember, those who go to work for the GCSB and S.I.S, have to find ways to fill in the working-day. For the most part, they sit around twiddling their dumbs or dreaming about subverting imaginary plots to subvert the Government. Too much time on their hands with nothing productive to do.

I can almost guarantee there is more to the 'seizure' than meets the eye, NZ Customs is bound by the Privacy Act so it is not able to disclose to the press the reason the electronics were held, only the the importer. The importer has described the goods as seized when they were in fact detained, because they were later released! (this is legally distinct) which begs the question what other facts has he not correctly described, or presented in a way that would make the action seem unjust to the press. Then again NZ Customs are probably protected from full disclosure by whoever gave them the intelligence.

I can truly see both sides to this, i think clearer legislation would make this less painful and damaging for all parties.

"The importer has described the goods as seized when they were in fact detained,"

Rubbish. They were seized, subjected almost certainly to copying and complete invasion of privacy and may also have been infected with surveillance software. The seizure almost certainly left the victim unable to communicate with his friends and family and manage his normal affairs.

Don't try to weasel your way out of that.

Detained and seized are two different words brother.

The importer wont get his stuff back if they were seized. But detained definitely they will get it back "if" there is nothing interest to Customs.

At the end of the day those guys are doing their just to protect NZ border.

In terms of Privacy vs Customs legislation. Ask the Government? why does Customs have such powerful legislation. Im sure JK will say... so that customs will have the power to assess the risk of ppl going out and in of NZ. First point of contact to the outside world.

Protecting the border guys.... Imagine if the importer was a terrorist or a rapist? it will be a different story...

Let it go... The Government will look at it whether to review or not. But u guys just chill out. Talk about something else...

Peace

The Customs and Excise Act is quite clear - Goods can be detained for examination by Customs, if anything untoward is found then they would be seized. There are also appeal provisions for when goods are seized.

Generally when Customs detains electronic media for inspection it is due to the fact that they may contain evidence of some type of offending. Further to this if you understand [or read the court news] the environment they operate in in with regards to websites you will note that it is generally due to the trading or downloading of Child Sexual Abuse images.

My issue with defending Mr Blackman while only listening to one side of the story is that you don't know what he has been up to in the privacy of his online world!

Not another inquiry. Please.

Agreed, One Track.

Please, not another enquiry that will probably clear Customs, find that nothing untoward happened and that nothing significant needs to change.

If this is Five Eyes, as suggested above, then no amount of public expenditure on enquiries and the like will result in a full and frank disclosure of the facts or processes.

If it's not Five Eyes, then there is bound to be enough fodder for consipiracy theorists to decide that it is Five Eyes anyway.

We can do all that without wasting the public's money.

Customs have already stated that it was because an IP address associated with the importer accessed something inappropriate back in 2007.

Since "for the children" and "stop terrorism" are the two catch cries of the last decade (and more), it's highly unlikely they will be found to have done anything untoward.

I thank Mr Wiggs for requesting a full enquiry.
Others rightly comment that past experience in this country would deliver a waste of time and money rather than clarity or justice.
May I suggest that the journalists and media return to not so very long ago (for those who read old newspapers) and the names of the officers be reported in full. We can then judge for ourselves the status and competence of the badge holder and also their superiors name who on publication and called to account may not be so impressed that their charge might have exceeded their mandate.
Society gifts some in our community a uniform and a badge to protect and serve. We all know, some let the power of the badge (and the modern trend of anonymity) bring out the worst in them as opposed to the pride of public service.
NBR and its journalists have on so many matters shown the lead. Name the initial instigator. If they hide behind a number then ferret out their name and publish.
I predict a sudden change in attitude amongst those who gain their official authority as a result of a job creation scheme rather than genuine competence.

When I read about this incident, the lack of a powerful response from those who are supposed to protect civil liberties, I have to pinch myself to remind myself that I am not in North Korea

When you and your entire family are dragged away to be executed because you dared to criticise John Key **then** you'll know that NZ has become like North Korea.

I'm a 911 truther and all that that entails, so I won't go on about the NSA, 5 eyes, WTC7, etc. What interests me is the (non)reaction of NZ media. Two stories (incl. followup) in the Herald (same story in the ODT), an international article on Forbes, a brief story on TV3, and this excellent article. The Forbes article was critical of Customs as was this article. Not a peep from RNZ, TV1 or Fearfacts newspapers.

Aside from all the other valid objections, NBR and Forbes point out that actions such as these are bad for tourism, bad for business and bad for NZ in general. I'm guessing that it was the media coverage, particularly the critical comments from NBR and Forbes that got Sam's stuff returned to him, complete with a completely unbelievable excuse for seizing the stuff in the first place.

Here's what you do if your stuff is taken: let the press know, and hold a press conference if necessary. There is a comment on the ODT story about a middle-aged NZ businesswoman whose stuff was also seized for no apparent reason. She's afraid to complain and won't use her real name in the comment box. There's no way to contact her, so I don't know if she'll get her stuff back. I left a comment on the ODT site, but it wasn't approved. The tone was civil, so there was no need to censor it.

Anyway, thank you NBR and Forbes, and a small hat tip to the Herald and TV3. If we don't keep the heat up on the powers that shouldn't be, they will just continue deprive us of more and more of our rights.

Widening my search, the scale is further tipped against NZ mainstream coverage with three more stories:

The Guardian on Thursday 12 December 2013 14.59 GMT
http://www.theguardian.com/world/2013/dec/12/nsa-files-live-coverage-of-all-developments-and-reaction

The International Business Times By Alistair Charlton | December 12, 2013 10:09 AM GMT
http://www.ibtimes.co.uk/new-zealand-backpacker-samuel-blackman-stripped-electronics-529617

The Epoch Times, By Zachary Stieber, Epoch Times | December 12, 2013
http://www.theepochtimes.com/n3/395854-samuel-blackman-nz-backpacker-gets-tech-gear-taken-at-auckland-airport/

Mike I didn't see your comment when I posted yesterday. I'm in a professional occupation where client confidentiality is a concern. I did walk out with my tools of trade, being laptop, smart phone etc but only because I decided to give up my passwords. In doing so I was forced to contravene all sorts of written agreements and my code of ethics. It was an agonising decision, although the professional body I belong to has assured me that I made the right choice under the circumstances. At present I don't feel it is appropriate to come forward under my own name in the media, the effect it could have on my business being the main reason, but also I am awaiting information from NZ Customs.

I'm a NZ citizen, a middle-aged self-employed female, and I was stopped at the border a few days ago, and faced with the choice of providing my passwords or having my equipment seized (laptop, smart phone, tablet). I decided that to provide my passwords would be the lesser of two evils because that way I could walk out with the devices which are essential for my work. However the cost to my business has been considerable for a number of reasons, and I have had to do things like formally notify my insurers in case a breach of privacy claim by a client arises as a result of the search. To be placed in a position where you are forced to relinquish everything your business is built upon in terms of integrity and confidentiality, with no explanation, and then read a statement by NZ Customs' Helen Keyes about these searches targeting "high risk" individuals....Well, I've yet to find out why I was considered "high risk" and I have also not been provided with any detailed information about what was done to my equipment during the search process, including whether any files were copied.