Congressman Adam Smith (D-WA) introduced legislation in the House of Representatives today to ensure that American citizens and legal residents returning to the U.S. from overseas are not subject to invasive searches of their laptop computers or other electronic devices without any suspicion of wrongdoing.  Senator Russell Feingold will introduce a similar bill in the Senate today.
“The chief responsibility of the United States Government is to protect its citizens, and while doing so it is critical that we do not overshadow the obligation to protect the privacy and rights of Americans,” said Congressman Adam Smith.  “This legislation will provide clear and commonsense legal avenues for the Department of Homeland Security to pursue those who commit crime and wish to do our country harm without infringing on the rights of American citizens.  Importantly, it will provide travelers a level of privacy for their computers, digital cameras, cellular telephones and other electronic devices consistent with the Constitution and our nation’s values of liberty.”
 
The Travelers Privacy Protection Act was introduced in response to a Department of Homeland Security policy, released on July 16th that allows customs agents to “review and analyze” the contents and files of laptops and other electronic devices for an unspecified period of time “absent individualized suspicion.”  This policy was issued following report of U.S. customs agents requiring citizens and legal residents to relinquish their laptops or cell phones to DHS authorities for lengthy periods of time while the devices were searched, and in some cases, contents of the devices copied.  Reports have also surfaced that some devices had been confiscated and returned weeks or months later with no explanation.
 
The Travelers Privacy Protection Act requires reasonable suspicion of illegal activity for Department of Homeland Security agents to search the contents of laptop computers or other electronic devices carried by U.S. citizens or lawful residents, and it prohibits profiling travelers based on their race, ethnicity, religion, or national origin.  Additionally, the bill requires probable cause and a warrant or court order to seize information uncovered during a search, and specifies that searches carried on for more than 24 hours become a seizure.  This bill also ensures that information acquired during an electronic search is protected by strict disclosure limitations, with exceptions for sharing information about possible criminal violations or foreign intelligence information.  The Travelers Privacy Protection Act also ensures that DHS provides information on its border search policies and practices to Congress and the public.