U.S. now can ask travelers for Facebook, Twitter handles

June 2, 2017 by Elizabeth Weise, Usa Today
Credit: CC0 Public Domain

Travelers wishing to visit the United States can now be asked for their social media handles and email addresses going back five years, a new U.S. government request that's alarmed privacy advocates but which the Trump Administration says could help weed out travelers who intend harm.

Citizens of most countries must apply for visas to travel to the United States, which are granted by the State Department. This generally involves a visit to a local U.S. embassy or consulate and an in-person interview with a consular official.

The supplemental questionnaire will only be given to "a fraction of 1% of the 13 or so million people who apply for a to visit the United States each year and is meant for applications for which consular officials feel more information is necessary," said Will Cox, a spokesman for the State Department's Bureau of Consular Affairs.

About 85% of those apply for visas are granted them, he said.

Applicants are not being asked for the passwords to these accounts and consular officers will not be going into and friending people, Cox said. The questionnaire also asked about employment history, siblings, children and spouses, "current or previous" and "living or deceased."

The State Department asked for the right to collect the information under an emergency request on May 3 which was granted on May 23 by the Office of Budget and Management. It was implemented with no fanfare on May 23 and it wasn't until Thursday, when Reuters first reported on it, that the existence of the new form became widely known.

Visa applicants might have faced requests for their social media handles in the past, but the practice is now explicit, a change that follows a series of restrictions to travelers entering the U.S. by the Trump Administration, some of which have been overturned in court. This latest request is far milder than other attempted changes, such as ban on travelers from predominantly Muslim countries.

But immigration and privacy attorneys say they worry consular officials will make a rush to judgement—while missing those who intend harm.

"We see this as part of a larger pattern of the federal government scrutinizing the social media of presumably blameless foreigners," said Adam Schwartz, a staff attorney with the Electronic Frontier Foundation, a digital civil rights group.

Visitors to the United States haven't previously been put on notice that whatever they have said on social media over the past five or more years is going to potentially be used against them.

"They weren't thinking about what might look suspicious to a consular official," said Schwartz.

"A lot of people have opinions on what's been going on in this country, but it doesn't mean they hate America. If someone said 'America sucks' online two years ago, does that mean they can't get a visa to come here?" said Reaz Jafri, head of the global immigration practice at the law firm of Withers Worldwide in New York.

He is concerned that those who are truly planning to harm the United States "aren't going to give you the email where they're plotting."

The State Department says it will continue to follow U.S. laws on when it can refuse entry to a visitor.

Visas can be denied for cases of fraud, past criminal record, links to terrorist groups, previous immigration violations, communicable disease and drug abuse. "Personal political belief is not a basis for refusal, even if it's a belief that we don't agree with," Cox said.

Pressure on social networks

Authorities and companies have come under increasing pressure to detect potential terrorist leanings that might have been spotted by watching the social media accounts of people involved.

After a terrorist drove a truck into a crowd near the British Parliament in March, killing three people, lawmakers there vowed to meet with Google, Facebook and Twitter, which they said had done too little to combat terrorists who used their digital networks for propaganda and communication.

In May, relatives of the victims of the 2015 San Bernardino terrorist attack sued the tech companies for not doing enough to stem the tide of terrorist propaganda online that helped radicalize Syed Rizwan Farook and his wife, Tashfeen Malik.

But the State Department has always had this ability, said Stephen Yale-Loehr, a professor of immigration law at Cornell Law School.

"U.S. government agencies already are reviewing people's social media accounts. This new form isn't going to add much to that existing effort," he said.

Yale-Loehr believes the new form will be used as a way to further delay and deny visas.

Data posted last month by the State Department showed that travel visas to people from more than 40 Muslim-majority countries were down close to 20% compared with the monthly average for 2016, a Politico analysis found.

"In essence, this new form is the 'lite' version of the administration's travel ban, and much harder to fight," Yale-Loehr said in an email.

Explore further: US to seek social media details from certain visa applicants

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11 comments

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howhot3
not rated yet Jun 02, 2017
Excellent.... that will keep the KGOP grifters out.
SamB
not rated yet Jun 03, 2017
Thank goodness I do not use Facebook or twitter..
EmceeSquared
1 / 5 (1) Jun 03, 2017
"Applicants are not being asked for the passwords to these accounts and consular officers will not be going into social media and friending people, [spokesman for the State Department's Bureau of Consular Affairs Will] Cox said."

Of course, the NSA has been storing every single email since at latest 2006, and Facebook has been giving the NSA whatever it wants since then too. The author, Elizabeth Weise of _USA Today_ doesn't mention that Cox's reassurances are meaningless.
Captain Stumpy
5 / 5 (3) Jun 03, 2017
Travelers ... can now be asked for their social media handles and email addresses going back five years
this is stupid
1- how will they verify that the handle or e-mail is accurate?

2- how will they validate that said user is the only user of said handle or e-mail?

3- unless said user has their only electronic device ever used, then this is useless as even their personally transported device can't be checked to verify honesty

4- what's to stop anyone from having multiple e-mails and or handles with very different actions and uses?
i mean really! i know several people who have specific facebook/etc handles to do different things and at several e-mails for different reasons: personal, work and fun, etc

5- some people have "family" accounts that may not reflect their personal beliefs, just like some people have families that don't reflect personal beliefs

this is stupid IMHO as the criminals (and terrorists) read the news too, and forewarned is forearmed
Origin314
5 / 5 (2) Jun 05, 2017
I feel this infringes on my privacy, it gives them power to dive into my personal life which is personal..

The answer is simple, I just won't travel to the U.S anymore not that I have in recent years do to the Canadian Dollar being so low...

What's next are they going to ask me for stool/urine sample, finger prints, eye scan and give me a bar-code tattoo the police can scan?
Captain Stumpy
not rated yet Jun 05, 2017
The answer is simple, I just won't travel to the U.S anymore...
@Origin314
instead of that, there is another way:
always have multiple e-mails with separate profiles, and build social media accounts surrounding each e-mail with it's specific profile

(1 for work, 1 for personal, etc)

you can release the work profile information to anyone which should be rather typical and boring which complies with the letter of the law

of course, this is what the smarter terrorists already do anyway, so i don't know why this idiocy is actually moving ahead into law.

i mean, without having every electronic communication device the person ever utilised, how, exactly, do they think they will be able to validate the claims of the person asking for a Visa?

this is a "feel good" law, much like the homeland security act: it's functionally useless but it makes us feel lawmakers are doing something
EmceeSquared
3 / 5 (2) Jun 05, 2017
This policy won't expose any terrorists, who will give throwaway account IDs like they use burner phones.

But it will suck the personal info of millions of people into US government databases. Which will be used for all kinds of purposes, none of which make us any safer.
Swede1967
not rated yet Jun 06, 2017
I agree, this bill isn't intended, nor will it catch clandestine operatives that are bent to do harm to innocents. It's a coarse filter for screening, and follows practices and precedence already established in the commercial sector. Obviously it's effective to some capacity, see latest article: Harvard Rescinds Admissions to 10 Students for Offensive Facebook Memes… (Just one of many examples available) Harvard made a determination that the students values where not congruent to that of the institution. The US has the same responsibility in making that determination with the admission of its guests.
EmceeSquared
1 / 5 (1) Jun 06, 2017
Swede1967:
I agree


The US has no responsibility - or power - to ensure it admits only guests whose values are congruent to the Federal government's. Only that those guests have not violated any laws that require their exclusion, and that there is no evidence they pose a significant security risk. The US is an open society whose government is prohibited from exercising "values congruence" outside of those highly practical measures. Which has made the country extremely successful and secure.
TheGhostofOtto1923
5 / 5 (1) Jun 06, 2017

this is stupid IMHO as the criminals (and terrorists) read the news too, and forewarned is forearmed
This may help identify media users who were active in the last 5 years and didn't anticipate that we would get access to their accounts.

It may also expose networks of friends and families who weren't necessarily active then.

'You give the bad guys rope with which to hang themselves.' - allah

'I will make you fishers of bad guys.' - godman jebus
Captain Stumpy
not rated yet Jun 06, 2017
This may help identify media users who were active in the last 5 years and didn't anticipate that we would get access to their accounts
granted there will be some seriously stupid terrorists who screw up and give the wrong account, but this isn't in any way going to be effective because those same idiots that give up the wrong account typically screw up a lot of other stuff and get caught

the one thing that this WILL do is this: as you stated, so i will re-quote it
It may also expose networks of friends and families who weren't necessarily active then.
that is what they're after really, as this kind of intel will lead to lots of potential threats to target and or watch

but then again, they can get the exact same info, and likely better info, by simply having undercover/etc agents with accounts in various areas using pseudonyms, fake pics and becoming a choice target to elicit recruiters

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