As of May 31, 2019, a new rule requires everyone who is applying for a visa to travel to the United States to submit their social media information as part of their application. The Department of Homeland Security (DHS) is rapidly expanding its collection of social media information and using it to evaluate the security risks posed by foreign and American travelers. Almost all visa applicants looking to travel or immigrate to the US will have to list five years’ worth of social media profiles on their visa applications, a move first proposed last year as part of the Trump administration’s “extreme vetting” policy toward visitors. More generally, social media monitoring—like other forms of surveillance—will impact what people say online, leading to self-censorship of people applying for visas as well as their family members and friends.
If the State Department’s current plans to undertake social media screening for 15 million travelers are implemented, government agencies will have to be able to understand the languages (more than 7,000) and cultural norms of 193 countries. People planning to travel to the United States are increasingly being asked to provide social media identifiers, such as their Twitter or Instagram handles, enabling the creation of a registry of their online postings. A social media “handle” or identifier is any name used by the individual on social platforms. The updated visa application forms list the specific social media platforms for which identifiers are being requested.
When DHS checks the social media of someone trying to obtain permission to come to the United States or someone already at or near the border, it inevitably picks up information about people with whom they interact. CPB agents conducting social media checks for people applying for visa waivers can examine not only the applicant’s posts but those of the people who interacted with him or her on social media (even if unwelcome), and may retain information so long as the agent believes it is “relevant” to the waiver decision. Examining contacts and networks may make sense when pursuing someone who is suspected of wrongdoing. But applying this technique to people who are simply seeking to travel opens the door to seeking expeditions for information that can easily be misinterpreted.
Social media information forms part of the data set that DHS uses to assign risk assessments to individual travelers through CBP’S Automated Targeting System (ATS). These assessments are highly consequential because they determine who is allowed to enter the country and what level of questioning, they are required to undergo. But there is no publicly available information about the accuracy, effectiveness, or empirical basis of risk assessments.
According to the government, National Security is a top priority when adjudicating visa applications, and every possible traveler and immigrant to the United States undergoes extensive security screening. The social media history will be used to verify the visa applicant’s identity, to investigate possible immigration or marriage fraud, and to verify either the applicant is eligible for the requested visa. The U.S. Department of State is constantly working to find mechanisms to improve screening processes to protect U.S. citizens, while supporting legitimate travel to the United States. This update implements the President’s March 6, 2017, Memorandum for the Secretary of State, the Attorney General, and the Secretary of Homeland Security and Section 5 of Executive Order 13780. Section 2 of the Memorandum directed certain Cabinet officials to, as permitted by law, “implement protocols and procedures as soon as practicable in their judgment will enhance the screening and vetting of applications for visas and other immigration benefits, so as to increase the safety and security of the American people.”