New Bill Could Stop All Unwarranted Phone Searches at the US Border

A bipartisan and bicameral bill aimed at making it unlawful for officials to search a phone or laptop or social media accounts at the border is passing through Congress. The bill, basically, protects all American citizens and nationals with a lawful, permanent, residential address from such searches without a criminal warrant.

The lawmakers behind the bill want, basically, to prevent Americans from being delayed at the border, or foreign nationals with permanent residence from being denied entry if they decline border officials demand for passwords to accounts or passcodes to phones.

“Americans’ constitutional rights shouldn’t disappear at the border,” explains Sen. Ron Wyden (D-OR), who introduced the “Protecting Data at the Border Act” on Tuesday along with Sen. Rand Paul (R-KY), and Reps. Jared Polis (D-CO) and Blake Farenthold (R-TX).

Wyden goes on to say, “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.”

Indeed, Greg Nojeim of the Center for Democracy and Technology argues that searching through a person’s cell phone or social media account is “a direct look behind the curtain that covers the most intimate aspects of your life.” He argues, then, that a stop at the border should not be an excuse to permit extreme surveillance, which includes the downloading of the entire contents of a person’s phone.

Should this bill become a law, it would require that border officials first obtain a warrant before they can obtain any of the sensitive information that might be in someone’s social media account, phone, or computer. And getting a warrant, of course, also requires probable cause (and a judge who is convinced of the concern and is willing to issue the warrant). Of course, Homeland Security and Customs and Border Protection, among other agencies, contend that they have wide authority to search any and all devices at the border.

Still, the lawmakers want to continue to tighten this law.

Rep Polis comments, “The government should not have the right to access your personal electronic devices without probable cause.”
He also adds, “Whether you are at home, walking down the street, or at the border, we must make it perfectly clear that our Fourth Amendment protections extend regardless of location. This bill is overdue, and I am glad we can come together in a bicameral, bipartisan manner to ensure that Customs and Border Patrol agents don’t continue to violate essential privacy safeguards.”