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Second bill tackles laptop border searches
Published: 2008-10-02

Three U.S. lawmakers announced this week that they had proposed a law to limit the searches of laptops or other electronic devices to cases where customs agents have reasonable suspicion of illegal activity.

The Travelers Privacy Protection Act, a bill written by U.S. Senators Russ Feingold, D-Wis., and Maria Cantwell, D-Wash., and Representative Adam Smith, D-Wash., would allow border agents to search electronic devices only if they had reasonable suspicions of wrongdoing. In addition, the legislation would limit the length of time that a device could be out of its owner's possession to 24 hours, after which the search becomes a seizure, requiring probable cause. The lawmakers decided to propose the legislation after the Department of Homeland Security failed to provide adequate information about the searches or the limitations on the power, Feingold said in a statement.

"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, emails, and photographs, and examine which websites they visited –- all without any suggestion of wrongdoing," Feingold said in the statement. "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 is the second bill to tackle the controversial issue of laptop border searches. Last month, Rep. Loretta Sanchez, D-Calif., introduced the Border Security Search Accountability Act, which would require that the U.S. Department of Homeland Security report to Congress on the number of searches and inform targeted individuals of their rights.

Civil-liberties organizations and business-travel groups have taken issue with the suspension of normal search rules for electronic devices at the U.S. border. In February, the Electronic Frontier Foundation and the Asian Law Caucus sued the Department of Homeland Security over the invasive searches. In May, a federal district court's ruling upholding the searches led to a broad coalition of groups warning international travelers to leave their electronic devices at home, if possible.

Like the previous bill, the TPPA would require that federal agents stringently protect any information take from a citizen's electronic devices and mandate that the DHS regularly report to Congress on their activities.

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Posted by: Robert Lemos
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