Skift Take

Who in their right mind wants to waste government workers' time and sanity to screen the social media accounts of tens of millions of visitors every year when there are home-grown wack-jobs spouting even more dangerous things every day?

The U.S. Department of Homeland Security submitted a proposal this week to screen social media profiles of all international travelers entering the U.S., including those part of the Visa Waiver Program.

If implemented, U.S. Customs and Border Protection and the Department of Homeland Security would add a line to Forms I94 and I94W, the latter for visa waiver travelers, that asks for social media identifying information such as a Twitter handle or Facebook profile name.

Offering up any social media information would be voluntary, which critics such as U.S. Rep. Vern Buchanan from Florida say makes the proposal toothless. Buchanan is sponsoring a bill that would make it mandatory for all international visitors to provide their social media identifiers. That bill is still being reviewed and hasn’t had any votes.

The proposal states, “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] 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.”

As of June 30 no one had submitted any comments on the proposal and the comments period goes through August 22.

Though the Department of Homeland Security claims social media screening would be optional, its proposal is still riddled with controversy. Whether optional or mandatory terrorists are likely to evade providing any incriminating information.

U.S. Travel Association’s Jonathan Grella, executive vice president of public affairs, said it’s uncertain what if any impact social media screening would have, “Ideas that are making it out there in public right now are not cure-alls. What was designed as voluntary was a work around privacy and other considerations. We respect more than anyone that knowledge is power and that more information is usually better than less information.”

“Trying to solve security problems with technology is extra difficult, we certainly don’t want to blast folks who are trying to solve very difficult problems.”

Obtaining international travelers’ contact information through social media, one of the proposal’s aims, is also controversial. Grella said U.S. Travel has internally floated the idea of asking visitors for such information, albeit not social media profiles.

“Having contact information could help with notifying visitors that their 90-day visas are about to expire, for example, and would help travelers avoid overstaying,” said Grella. “But if you’re up to no good, you won’t care.”

Problems With Social Media Screening

It’s possible that social media screening could create a chilling effect if put into practice, even if it’s optional for travelers.

Will travelers feel coerced to hand over this information?

Will Customs and Border Protection officers harass travelers to provide the information?

Those are some concerns of Sophia Cope, the Electronic Frontier Foundation’s staff attorney, who feels this is a “slippery slope” that could broaden to include American citizens, “would this policy bleed into American citizens coming back into the country? Today it’s social media handles and tomorrow it could include cloud content stored on mobile devices or anything on your phone.”

Cope points out that Homeland Security already has a history of screening social media profiles of travelers. In 2012 a UK traveler visiting the U.S. tweeted he planned to “destroy America” which the traveler said was taken out of context. He was questioned by Homeland Security upon arrival and sent home.

It’s also unclear how social media information will be used besides vetting travelers for entry, “What are Homeland Security’s standards for screening and evaluating social media so that the information isn’t taken out of context?” Cope said.

“You could eventually have travelers saying ‘I want to come to the U.S. but I’ll cut back on what I am saying online.’ That infringes upon international norms of freedom of expression on the Internet and is a serious issue. Or people could feel it’s not worth visiting if their privacy is in danger.”

The New York Times reported, “[Homeland Security] 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,” but it’s not clear what those situations are.

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Tags: CBP, department of homeland security, visa waiver

Photo credit: An international traveler is greeted by a Customs and Border Protection Officer at Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport in Atlanta, Georgia. Tami Chappell / Reuters

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