Prepare for Your Digital Strip Search, by Joel Bowman

We’re all criminals now. From Joel Bowman at

The more corrupt the state, the more numerous the laws.
~ Tacitus

“Guilty until proven innocent.”

So goes the implicit presumption of guilt under which state governments around the world routinely smuggle their stealth invasions of your privacy.

No doubt you’ve heard the catch phrase at one time or another: “If you have nothing to hide, you have nothing to worry about.”

Of course, when it comes to covering up their own pure-of-heart actions – covert wars, campaign funding shenanigans, disappearing emails, secret meetings, caging so-called “whistleblowers,” spy trading, arming foreign drug cartels, funding terrorist groups, etc. … etc. … etc. … – State actors appear rather less than forthcoming with the relevant details.

Such is the world we live in today.

The latest manifestation of just such a collision of hypocrisy and illogic (though, in all fairness to the state, it is difficult for us to keep abreast of each and every abuse of power it perpetrates) comes in the form of The Customs and Excise Act 2018, which came into effect here in New Zealand at the beginning of the month… just in time for our recent visit.

Expect to see similar Acts at airports, seaports, train stations and bus stops near you… and soon.

In its own twisted, Orwellian phraseology, the New Zealand law offers border agents guidance on how – and under what circumstances – they may conduct “digital strip-searches.”

Previous iterations of the law gifted agents permission to demand to see people’s electronic devices… but did not specify that travelers were obliged to hand over their passwords, too.

Now, travelers who refuse to unlock their phones, laptops and other smart devices can be charged NZ$5,000 on the spot… and have their devices impounded for a thorough, forensic search… something like the digital equivalent of the ol’ “rubber glove treatment.”

How might such an – ahem – invasive law manifest itself in polite, or even impolite, society, you ask?

Your editor traveled to the Land of the Long White Cloud last week to attend a wedding in the pristine Hawke’s Bay countryside. (The event, by the by, was private, tasteful and utterly voluntary… in other words, everything a compulsory relationship with a Big Brother state government is not.)

Standing in the customs line to exit the country after the festivities, we found ourselves not so much reflecting on the groom’s speech or the bride’s happy countenance, or even the copious amounts of fine Kiwi food and wine we enjoyed at their considerable expense…

Rather, we began wondering what information we might have stored on our various digital devices… even information we didn’t know about. (It’s always the “unknown unknowns.”)

Had some friendly prankster sent us a “naughty” email, for example?

Was there an “inappropriate picture” going around the various wedding “group chats” that we hadn’t seen?

Or maybe one of the uncountable newsletters to which we subscribe (or publish ourselves!) might be deemed sufficiently “anti-authoritarian?”

And what about the book we’re currently “e-reading” (Rudyard Kipling’s Collected Verse)? Kipling was, after all, a man of his times. Could we be accused of being some kind of crazed racist, transporting subversive literature across state borders?

Agents assure the public they will only implement the law when necessary, when they have “cause for suspicion.” But what might the officers do if they did decide (after consulting with… themselves) that we had so excited their admittedly mild imagination?

Should we wipe our hard drive? Toss Kipling in the trashcan? Flush our phone down the toilet?

Of course, in textbook doublespeak, they don’t have to tell you what their cause for suspicion is… that’s their secret. (See how that works?)

Customs spokesperson Terry Brown assured concerned civil liberties groups that the law struck a “delicate balance.”

Even the country’s laughably-named “privacy commissioner,” John Edwards, who had some influence in drafting the legislation, told local newspapers he was “pretty comfortable” with where the law stood.

Imagine our shock…

Like all such laws, under all such corrupted States, the arbiter of if and when a brazen abuse of power might be undertaken is granted to… he who would undertake it!

In this context, it’s important to remember that, in fact, you are a criminal… at least as far as the State defines the word.

Every day, peaceful individuals around the world break the laws of their land. Not because we are wanton criminals, you see. (Most of us recognize that committing a real crime is typically more hassle than it’s worth. Plus… morality and ethics.)

Instead, we do so unknowingly, simply because the laws of the land are so numerous that it is perfectly impossible for any one person – even one dedicated specifically to lawyering – to comprehend the vast and intentional complexities of all the busybody, meddlesome, nanny state rules and regulations set down to govern our lives.

When federal laws were first codified in the United States of America, back in 1927, they fit into a single volume. By the 1980s, there were 50 volumes of more than 23,000 pages.

And now? Nobody seems to know…

The Internal Revenue Code alone, first codified in 1874, contains more than 3.4 million words… roughly 7,500 pages long.

There are about 20,000 laws just governing the use and ownership of guns.

Most average people (and many who might consider themselves somewhat above average) have not read that much literature in a field they enjoy, never mind the legalese mumbo-jumbo that pads that unending, ever-expanding archive.

In other words, we break the law with ignorant bliss, with the cheerful nonchalance of a dog chewing on a bone. And yet, as we so often hear – ignorance is no excuse in the eyes of the law. We needn’t even know something is “wrong” to be charged and found guilty of our “crime.”

Of course, new laws “create” new crimes… and new criminals. It’s no coincidence then that the “Land of the Free” also has – by far – the highest incarceration rate of any country on the planet.

Then, it is easy to see why such an arrangement might be useful for a State looking to maintain a status quo monopoly on violence over a given population.

Simply put, when the laws are so numerous, when compliance is so onerous, and when the potential penalty is so injurious, everyone is made into a criminal.

And when everyone is a criminal, people are less likely to speak out against their would-be captor, lest they be whisked away to some dank cell under cover of night and in breach of some arcane law, about which they were entirely unawares.

If the above-quoted Roman thinker is anywhere even approaching correct, given the number of laws on the books today, we are indeed living through a truly corrupted state of affairs.


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