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London - If you’ve ever come back from holiday and been sure your carefully packed luggage wasn’t quite how you’d left it, you may not have been imagining things.
“Snooping” customs officials are secretly searching the bags of thousands of air passengers. Little-known powers allow covert searches to check if passengers are bringing too much alcohol or too many cigarettes into the country.
If nothing is found, passengers are never told their suitcases have been opened and interfered with.
But customs officials are not keeping records of fruitless searches – making it impossible to know the true scale of the snooping. And their own inspectors said the lack of records mean searches may have been disproportionate and unlawful.
They also warned that officials were ignoring guidance suggesting they needed written authorisation for such searches, and that the advice they were issued with was “contradictory”.
Privacy campaigners said the powers should be reined in, and proper records kept. The details emerged in a report published by the British Chief Inspector of Borders and Immigration, John Vine. He uncovered the practice in an inspection of Birmingham Airport, where more than 1,000 successful searches were carried out last year.
The airport handles more than 8.5 million passengers every year, on 84,000 flights – just three percent of all UK air traffic.
The Home Office was unable to provide any figures for the number of searches at other airports. Mr Vine’s inspectors found that 1,147 pieces of luggage were seized at Birmingham Airport following secret searches in the year to September 2012.
He said: “I found there was no central record to show occasions where covert baggage searches were carried out, but no seizures were made. The absence of these records meant that no assurance could be provided to demonstrate that this power was being used in a lawful, proportionate and controlled manner.”
Covert luggage searches are carried out on inbound flights after items are taken off planes, but before they are placed on the carousel for passengers to collect.
Nick Pickles, director of Big Brother Watch, said: “The fact the figures are not being properly collected begs the question if staff think they can get away with snooping in people’s luggage in search of a quick laugh or cheap thrill.”
A Border Force spokesman said: “Searching baggage, including when the owner is not present, is a legal and proportionate response to this issue. Any such searches must be authorised by a senior officer.
“We have already taken action on the recommendations the Chief Inspector made in his report.” - Daily Mail