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Wyden to Introduce Bill to Prohibit Warrantless Phone Searches at Border

A senator from Oregon who has a long track record of involvement on security and privacy issues says he plans to introduce a bill soon that would prevent border agents from forcing Americans returning to the country to unlock their phones without a warrant.

Sen. Ron Wyden said in a letter to the secretary of the Department of Homeland Security that he is concerned about reports that Customs and Border Protection agents are pressuring returning Americans into handing over their phone PINs or using their fingerprints to unlock their phones. DHS Secretary John Kelly has said that he’s considering the idea of asking visitors for the login data for their various social media accounts, information that typically would require a warrant to obtain.

“Circumventing the normal protection for such private information is simply unacceptable,” Wyden said in the letter, sent Monday.

“There are well-established procedures governing how law enforcement agencies may obtain data from social media companies and email providers. The process typically requires that the government obtain a search warrant or other court order, and then ask the service provider to turn over the user’s data.”

“I intend to introduce legislation shortly that will guarantee that the Fourth Amendment is respected.”

Foreign citizens visiting the United States have faced increased scrutiny in recent weeks. Wyden said in his letter that out-of-bounds searches not only violate the privacy and rights of travelers, but also asks CBP agents to go beyond their normal duties and could weaken national security in the process.

“”Indiscriminate digital searches distract CBP from its core mission and needlessly divert agency resources away from those who truly threaten our nation. Likewise, if businesses fear that their data can be seized when employees cross the border, they may reduce non-essential employee international travel, or deploy technical countermeasures, like ‘burner’ laptops and mobile devices, which some firms already use when employees visit nations like China,” Wyden said.

In his letter, Wyden says he plans to write a bill that would make sure border agents have to get a warrant before conducting any device searches. He didn’t specify when he would introduce the bill, however. Wyden also asked Kelly several questions, including what legal authority CBP uses to ask for travelers’ email, social media, and device passwords as a condition of entry. Wyden also asked how many times CBP has asked for such information in each of the last five years, and how many times it has done so since Donald Trump’s inauguration.

“I intend to introduce legislation shortly that will guarantee that the Fourth Amendment is respected at the border by requiring law enforcement agencies to obtain a warrant before searching devices, and prohibiting the practice of forcing travelers to reveal their online account passwords,” Wyden said in the letter.

A group of technology trade associations, civil liberties organizations, NGOs, and individual security experts also has come out in opposition to the idea of asking visitors for their passwords and searching phones at the border.

“Demands from U.S. border officials for passwords to social media accounts will also set a precedent that may ultimately affect all travelers around the world. This demand is likely to be mirrored by foreign governments, which will demand passwords from U.S. citizens when they seek entry to foreign countries. This would compromise U.S. economic security, cybersecurity, and national security, as well as damage the U.S.’s relationships with foreign governments and their citizenry,” a statement from the Center for Democracy and Technology and the other groups says.

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