US lawmakers introduce a bill to limit phone searches at the border

© Reuters. US lawmakers introduce bill to limit phone searches at the border

By Dustin Volz

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – Republican and Democratic lawmakers introduced legislation Tuesday that would require border agents to obtain a warrant before searching for data stored on electronic devices belonging to Americans.

The bill comes amid growing concern among civil liberties advocates about the effect on privacy of border searches for social media information, photos and emails saved on phones and laptops, which have increased by often in recent years and do not require a court order.

President Donald Trump‘s administration has stoked those concerns as it has sought to implement “extreme investigative” security controls to restrict the flow of immigrants and refugees to the United States, an effort that has included considering a requirement that Visitors share their social media passwords.

In addition to foreign visitors, media reports in recent months have suggested that the digital data of Americans re-entering the country has also come under increased scrutiny. Numbers maintained by the Department of Homeland Security show that border searches for phones have skyrocketed in recent years, and official documents show that the agency can extract data from some mobile devices, including those protected by passwords.

Generally, US law enforcement must obtain a warrant before they can search an American’s electronic devices. A unanimous decision by the US Supreme Court in 2014 stated that a search and seizure of the cell phone of an arrested person was unconstitutional without a warrant.

But a so-called “border search exception” allowed federal authorities to search within 100 miles (160 km) of a US border without a warrant.

The Border Data Protection Act would seek to limit the exception by requiring a court order before registering devices at the border belonging to a U.S. citizen or permanent resident, except in some emergency circumstances. It would not apply to foreign nationals with valid US visas entering the country or persons applying for US visas.

The bill would also prohibit officials from delaying or denying entry to the United States if an individual refuses to share passwords, personal information numbers, social media or online account information or access credentials.

Democratic Senator Ron Wyden and Republican Senator Rand Paul sponsored the legislation, while Democratic Rep. Jared Polis and Republican Rep. Blake Farenthold introduced the bill in the House.

Despite attracting bipartisan backers, it was unclear whether the measure could garner enough Republican support to advance the Republican-controlled Congress.

“A border stop shouldn’t be an excuse for extreme surveillance, like downloading all the content from your phone,” said Greg Nojeim, senior attorney for the Center for Democracy & Technology, a Washington civil liberties organization that supports the legislation.

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