The U.S. government has proposed asking foreign visitors to voluntarily disclose their Facebook, Twitter, and other social media information before they are admitted into the United States, as part of of security efforts to screen foreigners for links to terrorism.
U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP), a component of the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), has proposed adding a line to both online and paper visa forms that must be filled out by visitors asking them to “Please enter information associated with your online presence—Provider/Platform—Social media identifier.”
CBP said it wants to add the optional request to the Electronic System for Travel Authorization (ESTA) form and Form I-94W, which is used by people who enter the U.S. on the Visa Waiver Program that allows citizens of participating countries to visit the United States for business or tourism for stays of up to 90 days without a visa.
The DHS component announced the proposal in the Federal Register last week, saying the social media information would provide them with additional investigative tools.
“It will be an optional data field to request social media identifiers to be used for vetting purposes, as well as applicant contact information. Collecting social media data will enhance the existing investigative process and provide Department of Homeland Security (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 analyze and investigate the case,” states CBP in its announcement.
Rep. Vern Buchanan (R-FL), one of several lawmakers who have introduced bills requiring social media screening of foreigners, described the CBP proposal as “lame.”
He declared, “What terrorist is going to give our government permission to see their radical jihadist rants on social media? The only people who will share that information are those with nothing to hide.”
“Voluntary disclosure won’t keep anyone safe,” added Buchanan. “If we want to win on the digital battlefield, mandatory screening is required.”
His bill would direct DHS to examine all public records before admitting foreign travelers, including social media information.
“The department said that while it does not consistently examine social media accounts of applicants for visas or immigration, it has a list of nearly three dozen situations in which social media can be examined to screen applicants,” notes The New York Times (NYT).
Currently, the proposed change by CBP is under consideration, with the federal government taking comments from the public until August 22.
The Guardian notes:
The change forms part of the plan by the US DHS to scrutinize social media activity of visa applicants and those wishing to enter the country, following the San Bernardino killings in California, in which social media profiles formed part of the investigations along with an iPhone 5C.
Current DHS pilot programs are being kept under wraps but are said to scan a limited amount of social media posts. The pilot programs currently used by DHS do not sweep up all social media posts, though government officials have kept details of the programs closely held, as they do not want to reveal the precise process they use to try and identify potential threats.
It remains unclear how DHS will verify the veracity of the of the information provided on the visa forms before the applicant is allowed into the U.S.
That leaves open “the possibility of false information being put down, and while the information may be optional, it will likely be difficult to discern what is and isn’t required on the form,” explains the Guardian.
“The US government approves around 10m visa applications a year and had 77.5 million foreign visitors in 2015,” it adds. “Collecting social media accounts for all visitors could produce one of the largest government-controlled databases of its kind almost overnight.”
The CBP proposal comes after the U.S. Congress approved legislation last year to add restrictions to the Visa Waiver Program.
NYT reports, “The legislation was a response to the November terrorist attacks in Paris, which led to fears that European-born or naturalized citizens with terrorist ties could enter the United States without being properly vetted.”
“Legislation pending in Congress would require the Department of Homeland Security to collect social media information from foreign visitors,” it continues.