Senators introduce bill to end warrantless searches of electronic devices at border

Senators introduce bill to end warrantless searches of electronic devices at border
© Greg Nash

Sens. Ron WydenRonald (Ron) Lee WydenClimate advocates turn sights on Wall Street Democrats scramble to reach deal on taxes Pelosi open to scrapping key components in spending package MORE (D-Ore.) and Rand PaulRandal (Rand) Howard PaulVaccine 'resisters' are a real problem Democrats fret as longshot candidates pull money, attention Journalist Dave Levinthal discusses 'uptick' in congressional stock trade violations MORE (R-Ky.) this week reintroduced legislation that would bar the government from searching peoples' electronic devices at the border without a warrant.

The Protecting Data at the Border Act would bar law enforcement agencies from using a legal loophole to search the phones, laptops and other electronic devices of Americans crossing the border.

Sens. Ed MarkeyEd MarkeyDozens of Democrats call for spending bill to pass 'climate test' Under pressure, Democrats cut back spending House passes bills to secure telecommunications infrastructure MORE (D-Mass.) and Jeff MerkleyJeff MerkleyBiden injects new momentum into filibuster fight House passes bill to expand workplace protections for nursing mothers Senate Democrats call for diversity among new Federal Reserve Bank presidents MORE (D-Ore.) are co-sponsors of the bill, and Rep. Ted LieuTed W. LieuLet's build a superhighway in space Hillicon Valley — Presented by American Edge Project — Americans blame politicians, social media for spread of misinformation: poll Democrats urge federal agencies to address use of cryptocurrencies for ransomware payments MORE (D-Calif.) is set to introduce companion legislation in the House.

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A watchdog report last December found U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) officers searched 50 percent more electronic devices in fiscal 2017 — 29,000 devices among 397 million travelers — than they did the previous year, when they searched 18,400 devices from 390 million travelers.

The Department of Homeland Security's Office of the Inspector General (OIG) in the report concluded many of these electronic device searches were conducted improperly, without adequate supervision or adherence to preexisting policies.

Wyden and Paul in statements said the bill would bar the government from using the so-called border search exception to justify seizing Americans' devices.  

"The border is quickly becoming a rights-free zone for Americans who travel," Wyden said in a statement. "The government shouldn’t be able to review your whole digital life simply because you went on vacation, or had to travel for work." 

"It’s not rocket science: Require a warrant to search Americans’ electronic devices, so border agents can focus on the real security threats, not regular Americans," the privacy hawk said in the statement.

The bill would require customs officers to inform Americans of their rights before a traveler can consent to give up information about their online accounts or allow law enforcement to take their devices. 

The number of searches of Americans' electronic devices at the border has quadrupled in recent years, Wyden's office said in the statement announcing the bill's introduction.   

"Such searches are extraordinarily invasive, as modern devices store all manner of highly personal information including pictures, videos, texts, emails, location data, Internet search histories, calendars and other data," the office said. 

The Protecting Data at the Border Act stalled in the last Congress, failing to gain co-sponsors beyond Markey and Merkley. 

“Each year, tens of thousands of travelers are subject to invasive, warrantless searches of their electronic devices at the border," Neema Singh Guliani, senior legislative counsel at the American Civil Liberties Union, said in a statement supporting the bill. "This bill would help to stop some of these constitutional violations by making clear that the government must get a warrant to search Americans electronic devices. We urge Congress to pass this bill.”