Hand over your social media history before you enter the US

Since 2016, the US government has been hitting up travelers for their social media details.

Now, it wants more. A lot more, as in five years of social media history.

The request is now an optional field concocted by the Department of Homeland Security’s (DHS) Customs and Border Protection (CBP) agency in spite of being scorned/loathed/ridiculed by those who’ve pointed out that…

  • “Nefarious” people don’t share their cunning plans for terrorist attacks on social media (with at least one notable exception).
  • Nothing would stop evil-doers from lying about their social media presence or providing fake account names or even framing others by providing their targets’ social media handles (besides the fact that lying to the federal government is illegal).
  • Rights groups and civil liberties organizations call it “highly invasive” and “ineffective”.
  • Agents don’t typically mention that filling out something on a form is “optional”.
  • Many travelers are intimidated enough to assume they’ll look suspicious if they don’t fill everything out, and/or come from countries where “optional” really means “mandatory”.
  • “Optional” is just a stepping stone to “mandatory.”

So yes, about that last item, the stepping stone. The Trump administration hasn’t gotten rid of the “optional” part, though current Trump chief of staff John F. Kelly told Congress last year that he wanted DHS (he was DHS secretary at the time) to demand social media logins and passwords from potential immigrants coming from seven Muslim-majority nations.

Kelly’s request hasn’t gone anywhere, but now the Trump administration has proposed to make that stepping stone a whole lot bigger.

On Friday, the State Department proposed expanding the current request for social media information, currently required to apply for an immigrant visa. You can read its proposal here on the Federal Register.

If, after at least one 60-day public comment period, the proposal does go into effect, an estimated 14 million non-immigrant visa applicants per year would be asked to list their social media “identifiers” from multiple popular social media platforms during the five years preceding the date they apply for a non-immigrant visa.

They’ll also be given the “option” of providing information from social media platforms that they’ve used in the past five years besides those on the State Department’s list. The department is also looking to collect telephone numbers, email addresses and international travel for the previous five years, whether the applicant has been deported or removed from any country, and whether specified family members have been involved in terrorist activities.

The New York Times claims that the State Department’s list has 20 social platforms, including US-based Facebook, Flickr, Google+, Instagram, LinkedIn, Myspace, Pinterest, Reddit, Tumblr, Twitter, Vine and YouTube. It also lists platforms based overseas: the Chinese sites Douban, QQ, Sina Weibo, Tencent Weibo and Youku; the Russian social network VK; Twoo, which was created in Belgium; and Ask.fm, a question-and-answer platform based in Latvia.

Citizens from those countries to which the United States ordinarily grants visa-free travel, including Australia, Britain, Canada, France, Germany, Japan and South Korea, would be exempt from the new rules. In addition, visitors traveling on diplomatic and official visas will “mostly” be exempted, according to the NYT.

The plan was greeted, once again, with criticism.

Anil Kalhan, an associate professor of law at Drexel University who works on immigration and international human rights, called it “unnecessarily intrusive and beyond ridiculous” on Twitter.

The NYT quoted Hina Shamsi, director of the American Civil Liberties Union’s National Security Project:

This attempt to collect a massive amount of information on the social media activity of millions of visa applicants is yet another ineffective and deeply problematic Trump administration plan. It will infringe on the rights of immigrants and U.S. citizens by chilling freedom of speech and association, particularly because people will now have to wonder if what they say online will be misconstrued or misunderstood by a government official.

The State Department said in a statement that the proposal is one way to fight “emerging threats.”

Maintaining robust screening standards for visa applicants is a dynamic practice that must adapt to emerging threats. We already request limited contact information, travel history, family member information, and previous addresses from all visa applicants. Collecting this additional information from visa applicants will strengthen our process for vetting these applicants and confirming their identity.

The State Department is accepting comments up until 29 May. If you’d like to give the government your thoughts on the proposal, you can share them and your rationale at the regulations comment page.