Thanks, U.S. Rep. Blake Farenthold, for stepping up to protect Americans’ rights at the border — the U.S. side of it, where individual civil rights shouldn’t stop.
Recently Farenthold, R-Corpus Christi, signed on as a sponsor of the Protecting Data at the Border Act, a title that may sound nerdy and right up Farenthold’s alley because of his computer technology background. The first part is a wrong assumption. It’s not nerdy at all. The second part is correct. This bill fits Farenthold the tech geek (a label he wouldn’t find offensive) like Rick Perry’s suits fit.
But it’s Farenthold’s tea party principles that make him an ideal advocate for a bill that would prevent searches of cellphones and other digital devices without probable cause and a search warrant except in emergencies. This is when liberty seems less of a quirky tea party obsession and more like everybody’s best business. This is common ground for U.S. citizens of all political persuasions. The bill’s bipartisan sponsorship reflects as much. The other sponsors are Rep. Jared Polis, D-Colo., and Sens. Rand Paul, R-Ky., and Ron Wyden, D-Ore.
The Supreme Court recognized in 2014 that digital devices are fundamentally different from other property a person happens to be carrying, and ruled that law enforcement needed a warrant to search the digital devices of an arrested person. Yet, the same protection doesn’t apply to citizens returning from a trip across the border who are not suspected criminals. Their situation falls under a longstanding precedent known as the “border search exception” to the Fourth Amendment.
A search of cellphones and other digital devices isn’t like inspecting a driver’s license or passport. Cellphones store vast private, personal information such as credit cards, Social Security numbers, passwords and PINs to bank accounts, photos, videos, emails and text messages. They also can be used to track where their owners have been.
Border security officials should have probable cause to invade a person’s privacy like that. But they can do it on a whim. And they do. Unprompted searches of digital devices at the border rose from 4,700 in 2015 to 24,000 in 2016 and this year are on a pace to top 60,000, according to The Associated Press.
A news release from Farenthold’s office announcing the Protecting Data at the Border Act included a link to an NBC News story that examined 25 incidents of border crossings that led to this type of search. Twenty-three of the 25 people who were searched were Muslim. Surprise, surprise. It speaks well of Farenthold that he is standing up for the rights of U.S. citizens who fall under suspicion and are subjected to unreasonable searches because of the religion they practice.
At times we have criticized Farenthold for wasting time on tangential partisan issues. This issue is nonpartisan, bipartisan-supported and not at all tangential. His district is less than 150 miles from the Mexican border. But Paul and Polis represent landlocked states far from the Canadian and Mexican borders and this legislation is as important to them and their constituents as to Farenthold and his. The right not to be subjected to unreasonable searches and seizures is not tangential. It’s fundamental.