Customs spokesman Terry Brown said the changes were needed to clarify officers' powers if they suspected an offence had occurred.
"That may be a range of things involving child exploitation, drug smuggling, terrorist activity and the like, and on that basis we can ask you to provide access to your phone through whichever means, fingerprint or password," he told commercial radio.
Brown said New Zealand welcomed 6.6 million international visitors in 2017 and searched only 537 electronic devices.
He did not expect the figure to rise significantly because of the new rules.
New Zealand isn’t alone in conducting what have become known as digital strip-searches.
Between November 2017 and March 2018, the Canadian Border Services Agency examined the digital devices of 4,529 travelers, according to the Globe and Mail. That’s a tiny portion of the 20,407,746 people processed at the border during the same period, the newspaper reported.
In the United States, probes of mobile phones by border agents rose from fewer than 5,000 in 2015 to 25,000 in 2016, according to the Guardian. The Department of Homeland Security said the 2016 data was an anomaly.
Last year, the Knight First Amendment Institute at Columbia University filed a freedom of information suit to obtain DHS rules for conducting searches of these devices. In response, the watchdog group gained access to a log of more than 400 traveler complaints between 2011 and 2017, of which roughly 240 involved searches of electronic devices.
The American Civil Liberties Union has also entered the fray. Along with the Electronic Frontier Foundation, it brought a case last year against the DHS on behalf of 11 travelers whose phones and laptops were searched at U.S. airports and the nation’s northern border. In May, a federal judge in Massachusetts ruled that case could proceed, rejecting the government’s bid to have the complaint — mounted on First Amendment and Fourth Amendment grounds — dismissed.
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