‘Extreme Vetting’ May Involve Social Media Passwords, Questions About Ideology

A foreign airline passenger is greeted by a Customs and Border Protection Officer at Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport in Atlanta, Georgia January 5, 2004. REUTERS/Tami Chappell
REUTERS/Tami Chappell

The Wall Street Journal reported Tuesday on some ideas the Trump administration is discussing for the “extreme vetting” of foreign visitors, including asking the subjects to reveal their cell phone contacts, hand over the passwords to their social media accounts, supply financial records, and “answer probing questions about their ideology.”

“The administration also wants to subject more visa applicants to intense security reviews and have embassies spend more time interviewing each applicant. The changes could apply to people from all over the world, including allies like France and Germany,” the WSJ reports.

According to The Hillthe ideological probe could include questions such as “whether visitors support honor killings and whether they regard the ‘sanctity of human life.'”

The WSJ reasonably expects civil liberties activists to object to these changes in vetting procedures and also worries that other nations could retaliate with similar requirements on Americans seeking visas.

Although the Wall Street Journal states that the “full scope” of these extreme vetting measures has not been discussed with the American public yet, the article notes that many of the proposed changes were discussed in widely-reported congressional testimony by such high-profile officials as Homeland Security Secretary John Kelly.

For instance, the Atlantic tore into Kelly for telling the House Homeland Security Committee in February, “We want to say for instance, ‘What sites do you visit? And give us your passwords,’ so that we can see what they do on the Internet. If they don’t want to give us that information, then they don’t come.”

This comment was described as “horrifying” to privacy advocates and potentially “beyond most interpretations of the law,” even though the Atlantic conceded such questions are already asked “occasionally and informally” by border security agents in the U.S. and elsewhere – including immigration-friendly Canada.

One privacy advocate told the Atlantic that extreme vetting for every traveler might transgress against the low standards for “reasonable suspicion” in quizzing foreign visitors. Of course, if the standards are not applied to every visitor without much regard for country of origin, the Trump administration will likely run afoul of the activist judges who conjured hazy “anti-Muslim bias” arguments to block President Donald Trump’s order to suspend visas from six or seven countries that pose exceptional security risks.

Every step taken to focus vetting on high-risk populations, to employ scarce security resources more wisely and minimize the inconvenience to travelers, increases the chance that the enhanced vetting system will be denounced as unfair and discriminatory.

The U.S. government has taken a great deal of heat for missing social-media indications of radicalism after terrorist attacks. Not only is there bureaucratic apprehension about suffering another “lone wolf” attack from someone who turns out to have a long history of surfing jihadi websites, but no doubt, there are agents throughout the national security apparatus who think it is very reasonable to catch potential terrorists by scouting their online activity.

As the Atlantic piece noted, Israel’s invasive but remarkably effective screening procedures have been influential on American reformers for a long time, but they have also been criticized by privacy advocates within and outside of Israel. Some of those activists worry that American adoption of invasive Israel-style measures will give them more global legitimacy and inspire more countries to employ them.

Conversely, those who desire stronger security against extremists might applaud the proliferation of “extreme vetting” since more countries using the procedures would make it more difficult for threatening individuals to move around the world.

Another concern raised by the Wall Street Journal is that extreme vetting will harm the tourism industry because visitors will be nervous about handing over “cell phones and social-media passwords at the border.”

Bloomberg News relates fears of a “lost decade” for the $250 billion travel industry under President Trump, due to his executive orders, the new restrictions on passenger electronic devices aboard flights from certain airports, and extreme vetting measures.

“Mr. President, please tell the world that while we’re closed to terror, we’re open for business. Imbalanced communication is especially susceptible to being ‘lost in translation’ – so let’s work together to inform our friends and neighbors, who could benefit from reassurance, not just who is no longer welcome here, but who remains invited,” read a letter from U.S. Travel Association to President Trump.


Please let us know if you're having issues with commenting.