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 WydenOvernight Health Care — Sponsored by Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids — Trump issues order to bring transparency to health care prices | Fight over billions in ObamaCare payments heads to Supreme Court Senate set to bypass Iran fight amid growing tensions Overnight Defense: House passes T spending package with defense funds | Senate set to vote on blocking Saudi arms sales | UN nominee defends climate change record MORE (D-Ore.) and Rand PaulRandal (Rand) Howard PaulWe're all on the tarmac, waiting for an Iran policy This week: Congress set for clash on Trump's border request Washington braces for Trump's next move on Iran 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 MarkeyEdward (Ed) John MarkeySenate set to bypass Iran fight amid growing tensions Young activists press for change in 2020 election Hillicon Valley: House panel advances election security bill | GOP senator targets YouTube with bill on child exploitation | Hicks told Congress Trump camp felt 'relief' after release of Clinton docs | Commerce blacklists five Chinese tech groups MORE (D-Mass.) and Jeff MerkleyJeffrey (Jeff) Alan MerkleySenate set to bypass Iran fight amid growing tensions Congress unlikely to reach deal on Trump border bill before break Chaos within the EPA exposes Americans to toxins like asbestos MORE (D-Ore.) are co-sponsors of the bill, and Rep. Ted LieuTed W. LieuDemocrats call for restraint, oversight as Trump reportedly calls back Iranian strike Report: Iranian officials say Trump warned them attack was imminent Trump approved Iranian strike before pulling back: report 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.”