A New Zealand man returning home from London for Christmas has claimed he had all his electronic items confiscated at Auckland airport because he attended a debate on mass surveillance at which Guardian editor Alan Rusbridger spoke about the Snowden revelations.
Samuel Blackman told the New Zealand Herald that customs officials had confiscated his two smartphones, his iPad, an external hard drive, and a laptop, and demanded his passwords – which he gave them, he said, because he had “nothing to hide”.
One of the phones had no password but required a design to be traced on the screen. The official was unconcerned and said the forensic team would defeat security to access the device, Mr Blackman claimed.
Blackman said a customs official told him they were searching for objectionable material under New Zealand’s Films, Videos, and Publications Classification Act 1993.
Blackman said he had nothing like that on him and said the search and seizure on Wednesday might have occurred because of his attendance at the meeting at the Royal Institute for British Architects on 4 November, the Herald reported.
A New Zealand customs official told the paper it refused to discuss the case.
Posting on Twitter right after the alleged incident took place, Blackman said: “@NZ_Customs just breached my #BORA [Bill of Rights Act] #rights by seizing every electronic device I had at AKL [Auckland airport] without reason … No justifications and no time frames for return.”
Asked on what grounds customs had done this, and whether he was “interesting” to them, Blackman replied: “No grounds whatsoever. I asked multiple times. Not interesting other than travelling a lot in past months.”
When another Twitter user suggested the fact he went to “privacy conferences” during his recent travels in Europe and the US could have played a part, Blackman agreed: “That could well be the red flag. Albeit attended out of legal/journalistic interest.”
He claimed he was not offered legal representation and was not told how to get his possessions back, and added: “It felt like being mugged … They gave me a receipt for goods detained. Still no reasons, though.”
Around 300 people were at the November Riba meeting, including Tory MPs David Davis and Rory Stewart, Peter Barron of Google, and a number of Guardian and Observer staff.
It was organised by Observer columnist Henry Porter, but was not an official Guardian News & Media event.
Blackman tweeted his attendance at the time:
I asked Robert Patman, professor of international relations at the department of politics at the University of Otago in Dunedin, New Zealand, about the Samuel Blackman case.
He said he could not recall a similar case where electronic items had been confiscated from a traveller in New Zealand – and said the only similar case he could think of was that of David Miranda, the partner of former Guardian journalist Glenn Greenwald who was controversial detained at Heathrow in August and his electronic devices seized.