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Police infiltrate iPhone privacy

Police infiltrate iPhone privacy

By Bill Rowlings and Rajan Venkataraman*

Every time a new restrictions regime enters public consciousness, police go overboard.

The latest example is in Queensland, where officers apparently decided they could take possession of – and themselves search – mobile phones belonging to airline passengers landing at Brisbane airport.


Police are entitled to ask questions, and receive honest and accurate answers. That’s the law.

But – before Covid-19, at least – they were not entitled to seize and inspect your private property unless they had reasonable cause to suspect you had committed a crime, in which case you could ask to be arrested before they went through your belongings.

With C19, there are many aspects of over-policing that come to light, usually when a new ‘lockdown’ or restriction is first imposed. Police don’t appear to be able to adopt a balanced, sensible approach: they seem to pre-programmed to have to go excessive before winding their actions back to reasonable after complaints roll in.

The latest police excesses are those at Brisbane airport, but we’ve seen similar examples in the early days of C19 when a bloke wanted to eat a kebab on a park bench in Sydney, and when locals wanted to get exercise at venues in Melbourne.

Here are some formal questions to the Minister(s) for Police/Covid in Queensland, as to what police think they are entitled to do at Brisbane airport and on the Gold Coast – Tweed Heads road border:

  • Is it true that border officials are entitled to demand that they personally access data on smartphone apps like Google Map as reported in the news story?
  • What other apps can they demand access to?
  • Can they demand access to bank account details and transactions to “prove” any contention they desire to make?
  • What obligation is there on travellers to comply and allow access to phones and apps and to answer questions?
  • What laws/regulations cover all of this?
  • Are these powers related only to COVID-19 contact tracing or are they general powers?
  • Is it true that only non-Queensland residents are being asked for this information and, if so, what is the medical/epidemiological basis for that?
  • If it is the case, why are not Queenslanders being treated the same way?
  • What information about these procedures is being given to travellers before they book travel and before they board flights or start on other forms of travel to Queensland?
  • What privacy protections apply to personal information yielded in this manner? What penalties apply to guards and other officials who divulge, discuss or use inappropriately any information they get from travellers?
  • What rules apply if police or border officers find other information that might be “of interest” in the course of contact tracing (for example if they find bank transactions of interest)?
  • Who is responsible for use/abuse or mishandling of the phone or other e-device when it is in the hands of police or border officers?

Bill Rowlings is President of Civil Liberties Australia and Rajan Venkataraman is one of the two Vice-Presidents. Both have a long-standing interest in privacy matters.


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