Dem bill would force Border Patrol agents to get warrants before searching devices

Dem bill would force Border Patrol agents to get warrants before searching devices
© Victoria Sarno Jordan

A Democratic senator is introducing a bill that would require Border Patrol agents to obtain warrants before searching electronic devices at the U.S. border.

Sen. Ron WydenRonald (Ron) Lee WydenSenate Dems hold floor talk-a-thon against latest ObamaCare repeal bill Overnight Defense: Senate passes 0B defense bill | 3,000 US troops heading to Afghanistan | Two more Navy officials fired over ship collisions Finance to hold hearing on ObamaCare repeal bill MORE (D-Ore.) on Monday disclosed plans to draft the legislation in a letter to Secretary of Homeland Security John Kelly, raising alarm over the possibility of U.S. Customs and Border Protection demanding social media passwords from individuals attempting to enter the country. 

He also expressed concerns about reports of border agents asking American travelers for smartphone PIN numbers to access their mobile devices. 

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Reports surfaced in mid-February that a U.S.-born NASA scientist traveling back to the U.S. was pressured by border agents into handing over his smartphone PIN number.

“I intend to introduce legislation shortly that will guarantee that the Fourth Amendment is respected at the border by requiring law enforcement agencies to obtain a warrant before searching devices, and prohibiting the practice of forcing travelers to reveal their online account passwords,” Wyden wrote in the letter.

Kelly told a congressional panel earlier this month that individuals trying to visit the U.S. might be asked for their social media passwords in order to enhance security measures at the border.

“We want to get on their social media, with passwords: What do you do, what do you say?” Kelly said during questioning before the House Homeland Security Committee. “If they don’t want to cooperate, then you don’t come in.”

Wyden argued Monday that border agents would be circumventing normal constitutional protections by demanding access to social media accounts or other private data without first obtaining a warrant, in violation of the privacy and civil liberties of travelers. He also argued that the practice could backfire, taking federal resources away from Homeland Security efforts to protect the country.

“If businesses fear that their data can be seized when employees cross the border, they may reduce non-essential employee international travel, or deploy technical countermeasures, like ‘burner’ laptops and mobile devices, which some firms already use when employees visit nations like China,” Wyden wrote.

Separately, a coalition of dozens of organizations and individuals penned a letter to Kelly opposing the social media requirement on Tuesday, describing it as a “direct assault on fundamental rights.” The group included human rights and civil liberties organizations and trade associations, as well as experts on security, technology, and law. 

Wyden asked Kelly how many times border agents asked for or demanded smartphone, computer, social media, or email account passwords from Americans trying to enter the U.S. since President Trump’s inauguration, in addition to historical data on the practice dating back to 2012.

Wyden has sided with privacy and civil liberties advocates in the debate over encryption and U.S. law enforcement agencies’ access to private information for investigations. Last year, he argued against the FBI pressuring Apple to unlock an iPhone used by one of the San Bernardino attackers.