Can Australian Customs Search The Contents Of Your Laptop?

Can Australian Customs Search The Contents Of Your Laptop?

Dear Lifehacker, I’m flying to Australia next month to take part in an university exchange program, and I was wondering what is the customs officers’ policy regarding laptops and external HDDs arriving through Sydney airport: I’ve heard that in the US airport security can actually check the files in your laptop, and I would like to know if something similar has happened in Australia (I’m mainly concerned about my iTunes Library having some files that were acquired through torrent clients, and stuff like that). Thanks, Privacy Fan

Dear Privacy Fan,

The short answer — and it probably isn’t one you want to hear — is: yes, it can happen and it has happened. A quick search of the Australian Customs and Border Protection Service site highlights numerous cases where the contents of laptops and hard drives have been examined by border security officials, and people charged as a result. There’s even a category on the incoming passenger card to indicate whether you’re in possession of pornography.

The pornography connection is worth noting: I couldn’t find any examples of someone being charged specifically with having material that violated copyright on their laptop. However, there are documented cases of more wide-scale busts for copyright violation, so there’s no reason to assume that customs couldn’t decide to make an example of you. It might be economically unlikely, as it’s more effective to bust a mass importer of pirate DVDs than a single customer. And in practical terms, a bunch of music files in a single iTunes library are not likely to stand out as suspicious (unless the first items on the iTunes screen happen to be something that’s obviously not a legitimate purchase or rip, such as leaked albums or movies).

Even so, there’s no way I’d dismiss it as impossible. Australian customs official are remarkably thorough — more so than almost anywhere else in the world I’ve visited under normal circumstances — so the simplest approach is just to make sure you’re not doing anything wrong.

We’ve mentioned the prospect of encrypting your laptop to keep it safe from prying border security eyes before. That said, I can’t imagine that refusing to supply the password for your encrypted drive is going to do anything other than make customs officials more convinced than ever that you have something to hide. The best-case outcome there would probably be refusing to let you into the country in the first place, which is hardly what you want.

Another thought: even if Australian border protection wasn’t concerned about what was on your laptop, you’re still going to be returning to the US at some point, and could face similar examination there. And that’s leaving aside if you decide to take a discount trip to New Zealand or the Pacific Islands or South-East Asia while you’re here.

So given all that, I’d be backing up anything that was of questionable legality onto an external drive and leaving it at home. (What I’d really like to do is advise you not to download stuff illegally in the first place, but you’ve obviously already made that decision, so I won’t waste my breath.)

Something else to bear in mind is that you need (at least in theory) to be able to demonstrate that you intend to use that laptop yourself and aren’t planning on selling it while you’re in Australia. That’s unlikely to be an issue if you’re travelling as a student with a single machine, but it’s worth mentioning in case you’re a technology addict.

In the long run, you should enough to do in Australia that you won’t need to resort to watching or listening to your home media collection; get out, enjoy some live Aussie music, and relax in front of iView, the best of our local streaming TV services, if you want to kick back without leaving campus. Enjoy your visit!


Picture courtesy Australian Customs and Border Protection Service

Lifehacker Australia editor Angus Kidman has been known to travel overseas with more than one laptop. His Road Worrier column, looking at technology and organising tips for travellers, appears each week on Lifehacker.


  • Don’t forget about ACTA either. Although not currently in force in Australia, it does raise the prominence of border searches of electronic devices such as iPods and laptops. However, the Australian edits (and likely reflection in Australian law) provide some carve-outs for personal travellers and their baggage. Good news for you it seems!

  • I would have thought it would be unlikely that customs would care if you have dvd “backups”. How are customs to know the DVD rip isn’t from your own movie library and not a torrent? For a few songs, etc, you probably have more chance of being in a car accident from the airport than having an issue. I mean, when has customs reviewed travellers’ iPods and iPhones for music and video? How do you prove its all yours………

  • use an awesome free program like TrueCrypt and create a hidden encrypted drive or create an encrypted file and rename it something inconspicuous like error.log and shove it in a program folder. that way it’s unlikely to attract attention.

    • Unless that ‘error.log’ file happens to be over a few hundred MB, the average movie file is likely to be around 500MB+.

      If he encrypts his whole music and DVD collection this way it could be over 1GB easily.

      Safest way is to leave it at home

      • was just the first example I thought of. my point was that it can be made to look inconspicuous. even if it is ‘found’ it is still next to impossible to decrypt. your worst case would be that it is deleted in which case you would have to fall back to the backup you kept at home.

        regardless… if you are going to this much effort though you must really be paranoid.

      • I’ll second this. The main disadvantage to truecrpyt usability is that it’s one big encrypted volume, you can’t deal with discrete parts easily.

        On the other hand, if it’s a reasonably small collection of private material and you’ll have a good connection in australia, you can host a truecrypt volume somewhere – dropbox, some cheap server space you’ve set up ftp for, or if you’re really brave something like megaupload.

        You take a clean laptop across the border, then if you need it you can grab the truecrypt volume remotely. I’ve used this for client files that I had to keep confidential for work, but nowadays I just rely on good old vpn+remote desktop for that.

  • How could customs prove that the music files in your iTunes library are from illegal sources? There are numerous places you can legally buy MP3’s, what’s to say you didn’t source the files in your library from there?

    As a side note, pretty much every article I read on customs/border security/airlines/airport security/travelling makes me want to travel less and less. I already started at a pretty low point, being fairly tall I find air travel quite painful (physically), so I tend to avoid it at the best of times, but all these articles of late have just turned me off it completely. Looks like I wont ever see the world.

    • Never had an trouble with customs anywhere in the world. The worst was coming home from Bali where i had a dodgy straw hat which i declared and turns out it had bugs in it… all of a 30 second experience before i told the customs guys to chuck it out. Seriously dude, get out and see the world, customs should be the least of your worries.

      Oh, and i have travelled with a laptop and the only issues ive ever had with it are having to pull it out of my bag for the xray scanner…

  • I’d like to point out that the question on the customs form is worded as such:
    Are you carrying any items that may be considered illegal in Australia such as drugs, firearms, pornography…

    I’m paraphrasing as I can’t remember the exact wording, but the point is firstly it’s not a separate question of “Are you carrying pornography?” by itself and secondly the question is asking if you are carrying items which may be considered *illegal*. Not all porn is illegal in this country (yet?) so not all porn would necessarily have to be declared.

    Of course IANAL and if you have any doubt, declare it and the worst that will happen is that it is destroyed.

  • Why don’t people just say “porn”

    We all know “I’m mainly concerned about my iTunes Library having some files that were acquired through torrent clients, and stuff like that” means porn. Most likely very very sordid porn.

    Personally, I have gallons of porn, and when I say gallons, I mean “kept in waterproof containers in a large storage facility in Massachusetts”

    In fact there’s so much of it, I’m all giddy with excitement just thinking about it.

  • Steganography: Splitrar if you’re on windows, splitdmg if you’re on mac, split….cat or whatever it was if you’re on linux, and put the resulting things inside raw image files…

    Yeah, you’re right, download it over the internet in the other country. Easiest.

  • Customs Aust will only check for illegal porn, bestiality, child, animal, scat etc,

    They will not care about movies and music ripped from torrents as long as they are not the above genre.

  • A friend of a friend of mine works as a customs officer at an AU airport – has one of the biggest pirated movie collections my friend knows of… guess where the movies came from!?!

  • Why is anyone worrying about this when it would be so remotely unlikely that it would even be searched?

    Just because there are “numerous cases”, it doesn’t make it a regular practice.

  • Why would you not simply mail the HDD to yourself? If you are staying with friend get their address and post it to them? Encrypt the drive and even if customs is curious enough to plug it in, they can’t see what’s on it.

    Then on your return to the US, post it back home.

    • YUICHI – you are VERY VERY wrong. Get your facts straight, mate! This case was NOT about corrupt customs officers, but about corrupt security staff and other airport staff.
      In Australia, a private company is contracted by the government to look after aviation security – this company is not a part of a government department. The baggage handlers are also not government employees – they are employed by airlines and freight companies. It was these employees (NOT government employees) that were under suspicion.

      The only customs officer that was investigated in this case were the ones that could have leaked the report. It was customs who made the report about corrupt staff within the airport, and it was one of those officers who contributed to the report that supposedly leaked the information in the report to the press. The person being blamed for this is the officer (Kessing) mentioned in the article you linked to.
      The level of corruption within the Australian public service is VERY low. It is low to nil in Customs. Federal Law enforcement officers are under constant scrutiny.

      • one example, my friend who clubs alot, told me that he once witnessed a police officer taking money from the club owner, and skip the inspection, when they know people are high on all kinds of shit in the club

  • If Customs find concealed material on your laptop during a search, they’ll ask you for the password to decrypt it and if you fail to provide it during the search – they’ll probably refuse you entry, deny your future visas and give you a none too gentle prostate exam as part of their friendly service.

    Best bet is to just not do anything dodgy when coming through customs. Next best bet to is to hope you don’t get caught, and claim ignorance if you do get caught. Ignorance isn’t a defense – but customs have a lot of leeway to ignore victim free stupidity… very little incentive to ignore people trying to be sneaky.

  • Some inside info from an Ex ACS Officer:

    The Customs Act says that we have the power to examine anything that comes across the border, including computers, mobile phones and whatever.

    Basically I;ve been looking through comps for other illegal media since i joined in 2003. (and left in 2008) So even though they changed the question on the card, I’d expect operationally nothing really changed.

    Here is why I think they made the change:

    – Passenger comes in with porn.
    – Officer finds the porn and suspects it to be child porn.
    – Officer is NOT a specialist in movie classification (its a separate course) and cannot “officially” determine if it is or isnt.
    – If the passenger DID NOT declare on the form, then we can seize the computers and start legal process on the basis that they did NOT declare the pornography…. of course we can always DROP the case later on if necessary.

    Although we COULD prosecute someone for not declaring, its doesn’t mean that it is our regular practice. We get people not declaring tons of stuff everyday (namely Quarantine and food), and very rarely do we go to court.

    Hope that clarifies a few things!


    My guess

  • I have seen this first hand (Perth) last year. 1st two times they wanted to search the laptop I gave them password access – no result.

    Third time I refused unless they told me why, after a standoff and a search of bags I was on my way (they weren’t happy though).

    I can only put it down to Thailand often popping up on my itinerary, (we have property there). Interestingly enough I have had no problem after those incidents, so I’m none the wiser.

  • Hi, i know my comments are Late but i have a question. I hope anyone can help me.

    1st, I am aussie born and bred. Aussie Female in my late 20’s. I plan on going to south east asia for a 1 month trip. I know on my way back from south east asia since iam an aussie female. i probably won’t get my laptop searched as a aussie female would have a low chance of sneaking porn back in the border. lol

    However i do have some questionable things in my laptop. I do hack websites for fun and i have hacking tools and softwares and ddosing bots and stuff saved on my laptop. I also have alot of word files containing which websites are hackable and passwords to admins of many sites saved in word files. I am wanting to take my laptop on my trip but very worried of it getting checked on my way back. Please be aware that none of these sites were harmed. I do it for fun as a hobby and i don’t gain anything from it .

    If i were to encrypt these files and refuse to give them the password? what can happen? As i am Australian born and bred. They can’t refuse me entry to my own country which many people stated above that they could refuse entry based on suspicion but since iam Aussie citizen. Would they just let me through if i encrypt and refuse to give them the password? Does anyone else know what can happen? thank you.

    • well lets see your basically admitting to having illegal tools for conducting illegal activities on your laptop..
      and you are admitting that your laptop is littered with evidence that you have been engaged in illegal activities (whether or not anyone was harmed is largely irrelevant). I mean seriously would you leave pictures of yourself robbing a bank in another country on your laptop even if nobody got hurt? (that’s some pretty strange logic you have)

      so my advice to you would be.. do not take that laptop anywhere near a law enforcement officer (which includes customs officials)

      the worst that could happen is if they find a some “tools” of the trade that you neglected to clean off your hard disk before encrypting part of it… which would if discovered be reason enough for them to seize your laptop for further investigation. If they discover any illegal activity has taken place then they can refer the matter on to the AFP which could end up with you getting charged.

      alternatively they could seize your laptop if they discover it is encrypted and you refuse to give them your password.. If you flat out refuse to give them your password then they will take it as you acting suspiciously and just give you more grief. sure you may not incriminate yourself but you may also never see that laptop again.

      on the flip side if they discover you are a really good hacker with exceptional skills then you may even get a job offer.. (but that usually happens after you get charged and hauled in before the courts)

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