/Privacy Watch: US Visa Applicants Must Provide Social Media Details

Privacy Watch: US Visa Applicants Must Provide Social Media Details

By Jerri-Lynn Scofield, who has worked as a securities lawyer and a derivatives trader. She is currently writing a book about textile artisans.

The US just announced that all visa applicants must provide their social media details, as News Australia reports in New headache for Australians applying for US visa:

The US State Department is now requiring nearly all applicants for US visas to submit their handles for Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and YouTube as well as previous email addresses and phone numbers.

The new requirements, which were proposed in March 2018, are expected to affect about 15 million foreigners who apply for visas to the US each year and critics say it will unfairly target immigrants and travellers from Muslim-majority countries.

I don’t use Twitter, but I’ll cop to having a Facebook account.  Many of the artisans I’ve met through my textile research are Facebook users, and if I want to communicate with them, alas, it’s necessary for me to have an account. I’m an information taker. I never post anything on Facebook. And I have my privacy settings set so that only I can see what other friends post on my Facebook page. It’s not just the US that’s vetting the social media activity of visa applicants; in 2017, I had to supply social media details to procure a tourist visa to visit Iran.

As for the new US government visa requirements, this comes as no major surprise: I suppose those who share information on social media are well aware that any disclosures they might make on social media aren’t private. The news coverage of the new American policy makes it seem that it’s a peculiarly Trumpian depredation. But actually, the US government has monitored the social media traffic of foreigners for quite some time – as this 2015 Gizmodo article, Obama on Foreign Visitors: Public Social Media Posts Are Constantly Being Monitored, makes clear:

During a press conference today President Obama finally set the record straight about whether the government monitors the social media posts of foreign nationals entering the United States. The short answer: Most definitely.

Right now, the Department of Homeland Security hasn’t admitted to monitoring the private social media accounts of people applying for visas in the United States. But you can bet that anything said on an unlocked Twitter account or public Facebook post is fair game for surveillance by the Department of Homeland Security and other law enforcement agencies.

From President Obama, responding to a question from Reuters:

The issue of reviewing social media for those who are obtaining visas I think may have gotten garbled a little bit. It’s important to distinguish between posts that are public — social media on a Facebook page — versus private communications through various social media or apps. And our law enforcement and intelligence professionals are constantly monitoring public posts and that is part of the visa review process — that people are investigating what individuals have said publicly, and questioned about any statements they maybe made.

But if you have private communications between two people that’s harder to discern, by definition. And one of the things we’ll be doing is engaging with the high-tech community to find out how we can, in an appropriate way, do a better job if we have a lead, to be able to track suspected terrorists.

But we’re going to have to recognize that no government is going to have the capacity to read every single person’s texts or emails or social media. If it’s not posted publicly then there are going to be feasibility issues that are probably insurmountable at some level. And you know it raises certain questions about our values.

Keep in mind it was only a couple years ago where we were having a major debate about whether the government was becoming too much like Big Brother. And over all I think we’ve struck the right balance in protecting civil liberties and making sure that US citizens’ privacy is preserved [Jerri-Lynn here: original emphasis].

The American Civil Liberties Union believes that the new requirement may have a chilling effect on free speech. According to News Australia:

Hina Shamsi, director of the American Civil Liberties Union’s National Security Project, said there was no evidence social media monitoring was effective and that it could have a “chilling” effect on freedom of speech and promote self-censorship online.

“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,” she said in a statement.

“There is a real risk that social media vetting will unfairly target immigrants and travellers from Muslim-majority countries for discriminatory visa denials, without doing anything to protect national security.”

Now that the US has imposed such requirements, it’s likely other countries will adopt reciprocal policies. As The Hill reports in Trump administration to ask most US visa applicants for social media information:

Applicants will have the option to say that they do not use social media if that is the case. The official noted that if a visa applicant lies about social media use that they could face “serious immigration consequences” as a result.

For now, the drop down menu only includes major social media websites, but the official said applicants soon will be able to list all sites that they use.

“This is a critical step forward in establishing enhanced vetting of foreign nationals seeking entry into the United States,” the official told Hill.TV. “As we’ve seen around the world in recent years, social media can be a major forum for terrorist sentiment and activity. This will be a vital tool to screen out terrorists, public safety threats, and other dangerous individuals from gaining immigration benefits and setting foot on U.S. soil.”

The social media identifiers will be incorporated into a background check review against watchlists generated by the U.S. government.

Applicants will also be required in the future to turn more extensive information on their travel history.

I wonder who dreams up these policies. Do they really believe that potential terrorists are going to out themselves via social media posts? I mean, seriously: wouldn’t it be the case that such miscreants would do everything possible to pose as law-abiding milquetoasts. I would think the last thing a potential terrorist would do would be to upload incendiary commentary to social media. Sheesh!

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