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Bill would limit Homeland Security laptop searches

Legislation introduced last week intends to curb the broad authority the Department of Homeland Security has to conduct electronic searches at U.S. borders.

The Homeland Security Department has declared its right to seize laptops at the U.S. border indefinitely, but legislation introduced Thursday is intended to curb that power.

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U.S. Sens. Russ Feingold (D-Wis.), Maria Cantwell (D-Wash.), and Rep. Adam Smith, (D-Wash.), introduced the Travelers Privacy Protection Act in response to the DHS policy allowing customs agents to detain a traveler's laptop for an unspecified period of time to review its contents, even absent of individualized suspicion.

"Most Americans would be shocked to learn that upon their return to the U.S. from traveling abroad, the government could demand the password to their laptop, hold it for as long as it wants, pore over their documents, e-mails, and photographs, and examine which Web sites they visited--all without any suggestion of wrongdoing," Feingold said. "Focusing our limited law enforcement resources on law-abiding Americans who present no basis for suspicion does not make us any safer and is a gross violation of privacy."

The legislation would require DHS to form reasonable suspicion of illegal activity before searching electronic devices carried by U.S. residents. The DHS would also be required to provide probable cause and a warrant or court order to hold such a device for more than 24 hours. The bill also limits what information acquired through electronic searches the DHS can disclose, and it requires the department to report on its border searches to Congress.

The DHS refused to send a witness to a Senate hearing in June, chaired by Feingold, regarding searches of electronic devices, but it provided a written statement defending its policy. A ruling in April by the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals also defended the agency's right to conduct the searches without reasonable suspicion.

Similar bills, such as the Securing Our Borders and Our Data Act and the Border Security Search Accountability Act, have been introduced this year in the House.