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Politics

Senators propose bill requiring warrants to search devices at the border

The number of searches on devices at the border quadrupled over the last four years.

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A Customs and Border Protection agent watching surveillance footage.

James Martin/CNET

If you're taking a trip in to or out of the US, border agents currently have free rein to search through your digital devices

Unlike police, agents don't need a warrant to look through your phones, laptops and other electronics. Two US senators are hoping to change that with a bipartisan bill. 

Sen. Ron Wyden, a Democrat from Oregon, and Sen. Rand Paul, a Republican from Kentucky, on Wednesday introduced the Protecting Data at the Border Act, which would require agents to obtain a warrant before they can search Americans' devices at the border. 

The number of electronic searches at the border has spiked in the last four years. In 2018, the Department of Homeland Security conducted more than 33,000 searches on devices, compared with 4,764 searches in 2015. Customs and Border Protection declined to comment.

"The border is quickly becoming a rights-free zone for Americans who travel. The government shouldn't be able to review your whole digital life simply because you went on vacation, or had to travel for work," Wyden said in a statement. 

The bill is also being introduced in the House of Representatives by a group of Democrats. Wyden and Paul introduced the same bill in 2017. Since then, warrantless device searches at the border increased by 10 percent.

Law enforcement agencies have been taking advantage of the warrantless searches at the border, using the information discovered in unrelated court cases, the American Civil Liberties Union discovered through its related lawsuit against the DHS. 

Until a court makes a decision, the agency is still allowed to conduct these searches without a warrant. 

"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," Paul said. "Our bill will put an end to these intrusive government searches and uphold the fundamental protections of the Fourth Amendment." 

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