Bill Moves to Protect Traveler's Laptop Privacy

Following public fears and concerns over privacy, Democrats have submitted a bill that would curtail the Department of Homeland Securityis policy of seizing laptops at U.S. borders and demanding access to every file on the hard drive. The bill, dubbed the Travelers Privacy Protection Act, was introduced by Senators Russ Feingold (D-WI) and Maria Cantwell (D-WA), and Representative Adam Smith (D-WA), and is aimed at stopping what they see as "a gross violation of privacy."

Currently, the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) is confiscating laptops as it pleases when travelers -- including U.S. citizens -- enter into the country. The seized laptops are being held in some cases for months, and the agency is demanding travelers turn over the passwords necessary to access all of the hard driveis contents.

"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 wrong-doing," Senator Feingold said.

The bill limits the circumstances where the DHS can seize a traveleris laptop or other electronic devices, requires a "reasonable suspicion of illegal activity" before the device can be searched, and dictates that any device held more than 24 requires probable cause and a search warrant. It also prohibits the practice of profiling travelers based on their race, ethnicity, religion, or national origin.

"When it comes to homeland security, this Administration time and time again has exceeded the boundaries of current law behind closed doors, without public input, and without oversight," Senator Cantwell said. "The search and seizure of computers, cell phones, digital cameras, and other electronic devices of returning U.S. travelers at airports, even where there is no reasonable suspicion of wrongdoing, is just the most recent example."

Many travelers and privacy rights groups have raised concerns about the current DHS policy because in many cases the seizures appear to have been made without cause, and there is no apparent assurance that their personal files, banking information, photos and other documents are being protected from theft or misuse.

If passed, this bill could potentially restore a modicum of privacy for travelers, and prevent the unreasonable search and seizure of laptops and other personal electronic devices. The bill has not yet been debated, so there isnit any word yet on its likelihood of passing, or when that might happen.