Revealed: Police increasingly laying charges for refusing access to digital devices

Newshub can reveal Police are increasingly charging people who refuse to give them access to their digital devices.

And because our phones contain such a lot of personal information, a criminal lawyer says it raises serious ethical concerns.

A South Island woman Newshub spoke to, who didn't want to be identified, said she gave police access to her device in September after cannabis - mostly seedlings - was discovered at her property.

She said she handed over her phone to police as part of their investigation. But now she desperately wants her phone back.

"They said three weeks. It's been nearly nine months," she told Newshub.

The woman hasn't been charged. She's speaking out because she feels violated.

"They're literally invading my privacy on all scopes of life, including my adult sexual content, right?" she told Newshub.

"Adult to adult, sexual content, and how I may speak to my loved one."

Police have the right to seize mobile phones under the Search and Surveillance Act, but it's happening more often, and police say that's because the importance of digital evidence to investigations has increased over the past few years.

Official information obtained by Newshub shows a consecutive annual increase in the number of charges laid against people who refuse to give police access to their digital devices.

In 2018, Police laid 116 charges for refusing to give them access to digital devices. That increased to 187 in 2019, and then 336 in 2020. In 2021, there were 471 charges, compared to 512 last year.

It's a trend observed by criminal barrister John Munro.

"I've had experience in this where police will go on a big fishing expedition and they'll search everything on your phone they think could be potentially relevant to the case which they're investigating, and that could go back 10 years," he told Newshub.

"And people can have things on their phone which are perfectly legal, but intensely private."

Munro said it raises ethical questions about access to private information.

"The technology is increasing very fast," he told Newshub. "And it would be good, in my view, to have some sort of law codified as to what the police can do and the premise of what they can search."

The woman questioned: "What has my sex life got to do with cannabis?"

Because as the importance of digital evidence grows, she fears private content will no longer be so private.