NATIONWIDE — If you own a smartphone, you may feel having your device searched could be more intrusive than a search of your home. That’s the argument of several senators who are pushing for a new law to protect your privacy at the border. 

  • Senator Rand Paul is pushing Congress to pass the Protecting Data at the Border Act
  • Bill would prevent searches and seizure of smartphones without a warrant
  • Critics of current policy say its a violation of Fourth Amendment

Cell phones are the computers in our pockets. They can detail our entire lives, including everything from our financial information to the history of our most intimate relationships. So it may come as a surprise that it has long been legal for Border Patrol officers to search people’s phones without a warrant at the border.

“When I first heard about this and I heard that it would be possible that an American citizen could leave the country and come back and be denied entry into their own country, unless they gave their password, I was horrified,” Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul said.

Paul is pushing Congress to pass the Protecting Data at the Border Act. It would prevent border patrol agents from being able to search and seize smartphones without a warrant when Americans attempt to reenter the country.

He’s not only concerned about citizens, he’s also eyeing how visitors are treated as well.

“I really think that we need to extend the trusted travel program to the whole world and even these countries where we are so-called banning people now, let people go through who are legitimate businessmen and women, academics or physicians or whatever, if they have legitimate reasons,” Paul said.

“Individuals are being improperly targeted based on their religion, political beliefs or other impermissible factors. Whether your device is searched and whether you are held shouldn’t be the result of a whim by a particular officer, it should be subject to strict judicial oversight,” said Neema Singh Guliani of the American Civil Liberties Union at hearing held on Capitol Hill on the matter earlier this week.

Critics concerned with privacy rights describe the current policy on digital devices as a violation of the Fourth Amendment, especially the use by law enforcement to dig into people’s data they couldn’t search in other circumstances.

Border Protection declined to answer our questions directly, but directed us to a statement released earlier this year that describes this program as a necessarily tool.

The statement reads, in part: “Searches have resulted in evidence helpful in combating terrorist activity, child pornography...and visa fraud." They also noted they’ve done more to enhance transparency, accountability and oversight.

According to CBP, the number of devices searched at the border went from about 8,500 in 2015  to around 30,000 in 2017. It’s unclear why that number has spike so dramatically.

To read the full statement, click here.

To learn more about the agency’s directive for the border search of electronic devices, click here.