Sens. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., and Rand Paul, R-Ky., introduced a bipartisan bill this week that would prevent law enforcement agencies from searching phones, laptops, and other digital devices of those crossing United States borders.

The Protecting Data at the Border Act aims to put an end to “indiscriminate and suspicionless searches” of personal devices at the border, which have increased in recent years, according to a press release issued by the senators.

“Americans travel with phones and laptops holding nearly our entire lives. Traveling near the border shouldn’t give the government a free pass to throw out our rights and thumb through our phones without any suspicion of wrongdoing. My bill with Senator Paul recognizes that Americans’ rights shouldn’t evaporate when we’re near the border,” Sen. Wyden said. “Requiring a warrant to search our devices will focus the government’s resources on real threats, while upholding core Constitutional protections for liberty and privacy.”

In the landmark Riley v. California case in 2014, the Supreme Court ruled that law enforcement needs a warrant to search an electronic device when a person has been arrested. The Supreme Court concluded that a warrantless cell phone search violates the Fourth Amendment right to privacy, yet has not addressed the question of if this also applies to searches at the border.

Additionally, Federal appeals courts are split on the question of border searches of devices. Some parts of the country allow the warrantless searches, while the Ninth Circuit only allows the government to conduct warrantless searches for “digital contraband.”

The senators said they hope to put an end to the “border search exception,” extending the principles from Riley v. California to also apply at the border.

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“The Fourth Amendment is more important than ever in the digital age, and as the Supreme Court recognized in 2014, smartphones and digital devices are shielded from unreasonable searches. Respecting civil liberties and our Constitution actually strengthens our national security, and Americans should not be forced to surrender their rights or privacy at the border. Our bill will put an end to these intrusive government searches and uphold the fundamental protections of the Fourth Amendment,” Sen. Paul said.

Sens. Edward J. Markey, D-Mass., and Jeff Merkley, D-Ore., are lead co-sponsors for the bill, and Rep. Ted Lieu, D-Calif., is introducing the companion bill in the House.

“By searching travelers’ electronic devices, border officers can access a vast array of personal, sensitive information, including photos, texts, emails, internet browsing history, and location data. This happens to U.S. citizens, permanent residents, tourists, and business travelers. The Protecting Data at the Border Act is vital to stopping some of these constitutional violations by making clear that the government must get a warrant to search Americans electronic devices,” said Kate Ruane, senior legislative counsel at the American Civil Liberties Union. “We urge Congress to pass this bill.”

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Grace Dille
Grace Dille
Grace Dille is MeriTalk's Assistant Managing Editor covering the intersection of government and technology.