The Homeland Security Department plans to collect refugees’ and certain immigrants’ social media handles and monitor their publicly available information across 19 global platforms, according to an information collection activities notice published in the federal register this week.
“U.S. government departments and agencies involved in screening and vetting … identified the collection of social media user identifications (also known as usernames, identifiers, or ‘‘handles’’) and associated publicly available social media platforms used … during the past five years, as important for identity verification, immigration and national security vetting,” agency officials said in the release. “For DHS, these data elements will be added to certain immigration benefit request or traveler forms where the information was not already collected.”
A 2017 executive order on preventing foreign terrorists from entering the United States directed the agency to use resources to improve the screening process for visas and vetting protocols and procedures for admitting refugees. As people expand their digital footprints, the agency aims to use that biographic information to inform whether they should be admitted to the country and to receive immigration-related benefits.
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While Homeland Security has collected public social media data since 2012, the notice says that insiders have continuously endured a “labor-intensive step” to correctly match the applicants to their social media profiles.
“The collection of applicants’ social media identifiers and associated platforms will assist DHS by reducing the time needed to validate the attribution of the publicly-available posted information to the applicant and prevent mis-associations,” the agency said. “Social media may help distinguish individuals of concern from applicants whose information substantiates their eligibility for travel or an immigration benefit.”
Under President Obama’s administration in 2016, Homeland Security proposed adding a voluntary question regarding social media in the Electronic System for Travel Authorization form, which is the visa waiver program used by travelers from Europe, the United Kingdom and Australia to enter the U.S. After President Trump came into office, there was an announcement that the government would assess social media of individuals that they gauged could be a threat. Later, it would announce a new requirement: social media handles from all visa applicants.
Homeland Security’s latest notice indicates that the agency is now planning to collect social media data from all refugee and asylum seekers, as well as individuals who are already in the country and working to adjust their status.
The agency will ask for social media identifiers—but not passwords—for 19 distinct platforms, including AskFM, Flickr, Myspace, LinkedIn, Twitter, Vine, Youtube, Russia’s Vkontakte and China’s Tencent Weibo, among others, on certain electronic and paper forms.
“The platforms selected represent those which are among the most popular on a global basis,” the agency said.
Faiza Patel, co-director of the Brennan Center for Justice’s liberty and national security program, who conducts extensive research on Homeland Security’s social media vetting practices, said the notice raises many concerns but is better than earlier versions of the effort that didn’t specify which platforms the agency would search.
“They have actually narrowed down the platforms they are looking at,” Patel noted.
The agency can also go through future processes to introduce new platforms to the list. Still, Patel said a 2017 oversight report suggests Homeland Security’s previously run pilot programs and vetting efforts didn’t accurately indicate whether social media is effective at measuring security threats. And this move could also make it possible for the agency to create a sort of data registry of the online personas of anyone who is applying for a visa or adjustment of status, Patel said. It particularly affects individuals on student visas working toward permanent residency or green cards, or permanent residents trying to become American citizens.
“This makes it much easier for them to then monitor these people,” she said.
In some cases, applicants can opt-out of providing social media information—but it could stall or stop their overall process to enter the country. Patel also warned that it could allow for secretive religious and ideological profiling and involve cultural references that agency insiders or artificial intelligence platforms aren’t equipped to interpret. For diaspora in the U.S., it could mean new eyes on their profiles.
“It’s not that it’s just going to impact people overseas, it’s also going to affect people in the United States,” Patel said.
And agents would likely encounter American citizens’ profiles connected to the persons they’re investigating.
“There’s a lot of information that can be gleaned from social media—not just about the individuals but all of their friends,” Patel said. “So it’s just all of us that are kind of surveilled.”
The agency wants interested parties to provide insight by Nov. 4.