Politics & Government

Foreigners must provide social media accounts to enter U.S.

National security officials think examining social media profiles of people entering the U.S. will help identify extremist threats.
National security officials think examining social media profiles of people entering the U.S. will help identify extremist threats. Creative Commons

Foreign travelers will now be asked to provide links to their social media accounts before they enter the U.S. after the government implemented a new policy designed to identify “potential threats” on Tuesday.

The request to provide links to accounts on Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, Instagram, Google+ and LinkedIn is optional. But privacy advocates and some technology companies oppose the move on the grounds it violates civil liberties and freedom of expression.

The new policy, which was originally proposed this summer, was adopted Dec. 19 for people arriving via the visa waiver program. That program allows travelers from 38 countries to enter in the country without a visa. They apply through the Electronic System for Travel Authorization, which now asks about social media accounts in its online form.

“Enter information associated with your online presence, including the types of online platforms, applications and websites that you use to collaborate, share information and interact with others as well as username(s) associated with those accounts,” the form asks, noting that providing the information is “OPTIONAL.”

The government hopes the program will give officials more information about people who want to enter the U.S. and that examining their electronic life could provide clues to potential terrorist or extremist threats. Following the terrorist attack in San Bernardino last December, critics derided national security officials for failing to catch extremist postings from one of the attackers who had arrived in the country on a marriage visa.

“Collecting social media data will enhance the existing investigative process and provide [the 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,” the administration wrote announcing the proposed changes in the Federal Register in June.

But privacy advocates say the new measure violates privacy and there is no clear indication of how the information gathered will be used or stored.

“It is clear that an open-ended inquiry into ‘online presence’ would give DHS a window into applicants’ private lives,” a coalition of 28 civil rights and technology groups wrote in a letter in August in opposition to the proposal. “Scrutiny of their sensitive or controversial online profiles would lead many visa-waiver applicants to self-censor or delete their accounts, with consequences for personal, business, and travel-related activity.”

The group, which included the American Civil Liberties Union, the Committee to Protect Journalists and the Center for Democracy and Technology, said certain groups would face discrimination under the policy.

“The risk of discrimination based on analysis of social media content and connections is great and will fall hardest on Arab and Muslim communities, whose usernames, posts, contacts, and social networks will be exposed to intense scrutiny,” the letter said. “It also poses significant risks to journalists, whose profession requires confidentiality and whose social media networks may convey a profile that, taken out of context, could be misconstrued.”

The government said it will not deny applications of those who decline to provide their social media accounts.