Man looking at phone
US citizens have reportedly been forced to hand over PIN numbers and social media passwords iStock

In the wake of reports from US citizens who have experienced invasive searches from border control agents demanding access to personal online accounts, one US senator is looking for answers, saying he intends to introduce new legislation that will be designed to end such practices.

Oregon Senator Ron Wyden, well-known for his outspoken views on digital privacy and public criticism of the mass surveillance systems used by US intelligence, slammed the "troubling" revelations in a letter to Homeland Security secretary, John Kelly, on 20 February.

He wrote: "I am alarmed by recent media reports of Americans being detained by US Customers and Border Protection (CBP) and pressurised to give CBP agents access to their smartphone PIN numbers or otherwise provide access to locked mobile devices.

"These reports are deeply troubling, particularly in light of recent comments suggesting that [CBP] might begin demanding social media passwords from visitors to the United States.

"With those passwords, CBP may then be able to log in to accounts and access data that they would otherwise only be able to get from Internet companies with a warrant. Circumventing the normal protections for such private information is simply unacceptable."

Wyden's letter comes after a US citizen called Sidd Bikkannavar, who works for Nasa, was detained on 30 January by border patrol and forced to unlock his mobile phone. The incident occurred following the controversial travel ban that was put in place by President Trump.

Typically, the senator argued, there are "well-established" rules around how law enforcement and border agents can obtain travellers' data. This traditionally includes the use of court-ordered warrants which can be disputed by the service providers holding such data.

"In addition to violating the privacy and civil liberties of travellers, these digital dragnet border search practices weaken our national and economic security," Wyden continued.

He added: "Indiscriminate digital searches distract CBP from its core mission and needlessly divert agency resources away from those who truly threaten our nation.

"If businesses fear that their data can be seized when employees cross the border, they may reduce non-essential employee international travel, or deploy technical countermeasures, like 'burner' laptops and mobile devices, which some firms already use when employees visit nations like China.

"I intend to introduce legislation shortly that will guarantee that the Fourth Amendment is respected at the border by requiring law enforcement agencies to obtain a warrant before searching devices, and prohibiting the practice of forcing travellers to reveal their online account passwords."

He has demanded that Kelly respond to a series of probing questions surrounding the CBP's past history with invasive searches, including under what "legal authority" it was asking for social media account passwords and PIN numbers and a slew of records going back to 2012.