Declan McCullagh writes in wired.com that a bill has been passed by the U.S. House of Representatives that would allow U.S. Customs agents to open any mailed letter or parcel for almost any reason. The bill, called the Customs Border Security Act, allows incoming or outgoing mail to be searched at the border “without a search warrant.” Under current law, it?s already legal for Customs agents to open packages they find suspicious.

So far, the U.S. House of Representatives has approved the new surveillance powers by a 327 to 101 vote. A similar bill awaits a floor vote in the Senate, which is likely to happen this week. The vote by the House came after a heated debate on the House floor over an amendment that would have deleted the mail-snooping sections of the bill. “Exercise of these new powers could infringe on the right of innocent Americans to travel and communicate internationally free of unnecessary federal control,” says Rep. Ron Paul (R-Texas). He asked his fellow legislators to “Please say no to unconstitutional searches and unaccountable government, and say yes to liberty and constitutional government.”

The Customs Border Security Act says an agent cannot be held liable for any type of search, including racial profiling, as long as the “officer or employee performed the search in good faith.” Rep. Maxine Waters (D-California) sponsored an amendment which would have preserved the current legal status of Customs officers, who can be sued for wrongful searches, but this failed to pass.

The Postal Service?s lobbyists are opposing the bill. Brad Jansen of the Free Congress Foundation, says, “While I have been publicly critical of the U.S. Postal Service for their poor overall record on privacy, I will admit that they have been consistent and resolute in their adherence to our Fourth Amendment protections against warrantless searches.”

Katie Corrigan, of the American Civil Liberties Union, says of the House debate, “They (the Post Office) expressed concern that the bill would undermine individual privacy. With each step in the process, people become a little more educated. We hope that when it heads into (a future Senate-House conference committee), we can strip that section out.”

Last December, the ACLU sent a letter to Congress saying, “People in the United States have an expectation of privacy in the mail they send to friends, family or business associates abroad. The Customs Service’s interest in confiscating illegal weapons’ shipments, drugs or other contraband is adequately protected by its ability to secure a search warrant when it has probable cause.”

The Direct Marketing Association says, “This would be the first time since Ben Franklin created the Postal Service that seizure and searches, without warrants, of outbound international mail would be allowed.”

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