Under the Customs Act, Border Force officers have the power to examine goods subject to Customs control. One of the "goods" referred to in this Act are documents. These documents may be paper-based or may need to be read using an electronic device, if they are indeed stored on a mobile phone or laptop. These powers, allowing anyone and for any reason, to have their belongings searched is a highly invasive process.
Electronic devices held for forensic examination under section 186 of the Customs Act will be retained for no longer than 14 days, although devices may be retained longer if cooperation from the traveller is not provided.
After examining an item, Border Force officers may copy a document where they are satisfied that the document may contain information relevant to prohibited goods, an offence against the Customs Act or a prescribed Act, or to certain security matters. Where the investigation is proportional with a high degree of certainty, evidencing prohibited goods or other offences, one can see its viability. It is rather how "certain security matters" is brought into play and what it actually means as a reason for conducting a 'search and seizure'.
Everyday citizens hold a lot of sensitive information on their smartphones and laptops, in the form not only of written documents, but private email communications, not to mention photographs and videos. When taken out of context this data may well be used for any number of reasons but may misrepresent an individual.
Whether or not the GDPR is relevant in this discussion, depends on the location where the individual resides and where certain data was gathered (inside or outside the European Union).
One thing for sure is the level of power that is being handed over to our law enforcement to conduct such investigations. It used to be that consent was required for any search to be conducted, even for the collection and analysis of DNA evidence. Across the globe we can now see certain measures being relaxed by narrowly won court decisions, such as in the United States where the police can gather DNA evidence after the arrest of an individual, with or without their consent.
Our smartphones and laptops contain rich reflections of ourselves, but if sensitive information is leaked, say in the case of a lawyer or doctor who is travelling across regions, then there are major concerns for privacy.
Additionally, the fact that police have access to certain levels of computer gadgetry, e.g. to MacBooks or other supposedly "unbreakable iOS" systems touted as 'privacy-enhancing' then there is also a major concern with the way that corporations are misleading consumers about how much privacy they really have.
It is perhaps a warning that I have heard too often before. If you are doing sensitive work, keep your files on your computer encrypted, or go one better and do not take your computer with you through Customs. Put it on the Cloud where the GDPR is in force and lease a laptop in your given destination.
It seems like this could never happen to you, until it does. We have no knowledge of why the police were searching this man's computer- could it be a case of misdirected intelligence? We may well never find out.