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Homeland Security proposes social media screening on US visas

US Customs and Border Protection

The Department of Homeland Security (DHS) has put forward proposed amendments to entry requirements into the US in which travellers would have to disclose their social media during the vetting process.

The move has already been condemned by numerous corners of the industry, including tech giants such as Google and Facebook, as well as various industry bodies including the Americans for Immigrant Justice, Center for Democracy & Technology, Council on American-Islamic Relations and National Immigrant Justice Center.

Concerns for the moment have focused around online free speech and whether posts could be mistakenly interpreted in a disreputable context resulting in an individual being turned away from the states. Whether this will limit how an individual expresses themselves online remains to be seen, while the ripple effect worldwide is another area which has caused unease. If the American government sees fit to take a closer look at social media accounts it could kick start a precedent which would see other nations who arguably have a less accommodating approach to free-speech taking on the same policy.

Although the information available for the moment is relatively vague, the DHS has stated “collecting social media data will enhance the existing investigative process and provide DHS greater clarity and visibility to possible nefarious activity and connections by providing an additional tool set which analysts and investigators may use to better analyse and investigate the case”. How the ‘social media identifier’ will be used or what the DHS will be specifically searching for is unknown, though passwords will not be asked for and only public posts can be reviewed for the moment.


 

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The Center for Democracy & Technology (CDT) has made its opinion known in an coalition letter which has also been signed by 27 other agencies in reaction to the proposal. The group has stated the DHS having access to this information could see individuals delete their online presence or censor their own thoughts out of fear of being turned away from the US. In the CDT’s opinion, the move is highly invasive and unnecessary.

“It is not clear how applicants’ identifiers would be used by CBP officers to determine their eligibility for a visa waiver, but it is clear that an open-ended inquiry into ‘online presence’ would give DHS a window into applicants’ private lives. Individuals’ ‘online presence’ could include their reading lists, political affinities, professional activities, and private diversions,” the CDT states in the letter.

Aside from being evasive, the CDT also claims the proposed changes are misleading, believing it to be an intelligence play as opposed to customs. Cultural and linguistic barriers also increase the risk that social media activity will be misconstrued by officials who will judge on US context as opposed to a localized view.

“DHS collection of online identity information is an intelligence surveillance program clothed as a customs administration mechanism. All of the information collected through ESTA is shared, in bulk, with U.S. intelligence agencies and can be used to seed more intelligence surveillance unrelated to the applicant’s eligibility for a visa waiver.”

The proposed changes are driven by security concerns from the US government, though it would appear to be a little heavy handed and clumsy. While most assume entry into the US is a more complex, time-consuming and intrusive process than most other countries, the industry is seemingly concerned these actions have gone too far. Although there is notable risk information, comments or pictures could be misunderstood without context, another, perhaps more concerning, implication is how this will influence the policies of other nations around the world who are less accommodating of free speech principles.


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