Bill would stop warrantless border device searches of US citizens

Story highlights

  • Rand Paul, Ron Wyan and other privacy advocates introduced the bill to stop searches of electronic devices
  • Currently, authorities have broad powers to search electronic devices at the border

Washington (CNN)A new bipartisan bill would prevent Americans' electronic devices from being searched at the border without a warrant, a response to an increase in such electronic searches.

The bill was introduced Tuesday by a pair of Republican and Democratic lawmakers in the House and Senate. Privacy hawks Sens. Ron Wyden, a Democrat from Oregon, and Rand Paul, a Republican from Kentucky, introduced it in the Senate, and Reps. Jared Polis, a Democrat from Colorado, and Blake Farenthold, a Republican from Texas, sponsored it in the House.
The bill would require a warrant before agents could search Americans' phones, laptops and other devices at entries to the US, including airports and border crossings.
"Americans' constitutional rights shouldn't disappear at the border," Wyden said in a statement. "By requiring a warrant to search Americans' devices and prohibiting unreasonable delay, this bill makes sure that border agents are focused on criminals and terrorists instead of wasting their time thumbing through innocent Americans' personal photos and other data."
Currently, authorities have broad powers to search electronic devices at the border. Courts have long held that specifically at ports of entry, travelers including Americans have little privacy protections.
Homeland Security Secretary John Kelly has indicated the Trump administration intends to aggressively investigate potential entrants to the US, including possibly demanding social media accounts and passwords for applicants to enter the US. That potential policy is part of an overall greater scrutiny of immigrants coming to the US.
Reports have spread that US citizens have also been caught up in the enhanced vetting effort.
The numbers of such searches have already been trending up. Customs and Border Protection said recently that in fiscal year 2016 it conducted 23,877 electronic media searches, up from only 4,764 the year before, out of nearly 400 million arrivals. But CBP also said fewer searches happened in February of this year than the one before.
Wyden also sent a letter to DHS demanding answers on the searches in February, but has yet to receive a response, according to his office.
While borders are considered a low privacy zone, Paul noted in the statement that the Supreme Court ruled in 2014 that cellphones and laptops cannot be searched during an arrest the same way pockets or backpacks can, as such electronic devices contain an enormous amount of personal information that would not traditionally travel with a person in physical form.
"As the Supreme Court unanimously recognized in 2014, innovation does not render the Fourth Amendment obsolete," Paul said. "It still stands today as a shield between the American people and a government all too eager to invade their digital lives. Americans should not be asked to surrender their rights or privacy at the border, and our bill will put an end to the government's intrusive practices."
While the bill is bipartisan in both chambers, privacy legislation has traditionally had an uphill battle to passage, and the demanding congressional agenda this year makes passing any bills a difficult lift.