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New bill would crack down on border phone searches without warrants

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Senate Committee Holds Confirmation Hearing For Rep. Mike Pompeo To Become Director Of C.I.A. Photo by Joe Raedle/Getty Images

A bipartisan group of lawmakers has introduced a bill that would make border agents get a warrant before searching Americans’ phones, and affirm that they can cross the border without handing over account passwords. The Protecting Data at the Border Act is sponsored by Ron Wyden (D-OR) and Rand Paul (R-KY) in the Senate; in the House, it’s backed by Jared Polis (D-CO), Adam Smith (D-WA), Don Beyer (D-VA), and Blake Farenthold (R-TX).

The proposal would prohibit law enforcement officers from accessing “electronic equipment” of a US resident without establishing probable cause. They also wouldn’t be able to deny entry or exit based on whether the person provides PINs, passwords, biometric authentication, or similar data. Customs agents would be able to disregard the ban in “emergency” situations.

Though its chances of passing are likely slim, the bill is meant to address growing concern over invasive customs searches, especially as the Trump administration puts a greater focus on aggressive border security measures. Because it applies only to US persons — either citizens or permanent residents — it wouldn’t address complaints from foreign travelers, nor stop the administration from asking visa applicants to turn over phones and social media details for “extreme vetting.” But it could apply to incidents like the case of NASA scientist Sidd Bikkannavar, an American citizen who was forced to unlock his government-issued phone to reenter the country.

Senator Wyden announced that he would bring a bill like the Protecting Data at the Border Act earlier this year, after formally requesting that Homeland Security head John Kelly reveal how often border patrol personnel demanded device access or account passwords from Americans. Wyden’s office told BuzzFeed that the department had not yet replied. “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.”