Social media info of foreign travelers sought by DHS in revised Customs form

Customs officials this week began asking foreign visitors for their social media usernames before entering the country, quietly implementing a security measure that was hotly contested by privacy advocates and the tech sector alike when proposed earlier this year.

The paperwork presented to foreigners wishing to travel to the United States through its Visa Waiver Program was updated Tuesday to include a new, optional question that asks applications to “enter information associated with your online presence,” Politico reported first this week.

Would-be travelers who fill out the form online are now given a drop-down menu containing the names of 13 social media companies and an “other” option, as well as an adjacent entry field where they are asked to supply their corresponding username. The companies listed include social media’s largest, including Facebook and Twitter, as well as photo-sharing site Flickr, coding repository GitHub and VKontakte, a network used widely across Russia.

The optional question only appears on the the Electronic System for Travel Authorization (ESTA) form given by U.S. Customs and Border Patrol officials to a limited category of foreigns who are eligible to travel into the U.S. through its Visa Waiver Program. The program is restricted to travelers from 38 preselected countries, and allows successful applicants to stay in the U.S. for up to 90 days for business or pleasure without obtaining a visa.

The form itself is used to assess “law enforcement or security risk,” according to the CBP website, and a spokeswoman said the policy change is meant to “identify potential threats,” Politico reported this week.

“Collecting social media data will enhance the existing investigative process,” the Department of Homeland Security said when it proposed adding the question in June, “and provide DHS 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 proposed revision was quickly panned by critics, however, and in August a coalition composed of more than two dozens rights groups including the American Civil Liberties Union and Electronic Frontier Foundation urged the government to abandon what it described as a highly invasive tactic that would likely yield disproportionate risks. Similar objections were raised by the Internet Association, a trade group composed of companies including Google, Facebook and Twitter, among others, as well as David Kaye, the U.N. Special Rapporteur on the promotion and protection of the right to freedom of opinion and expression.

“There are very few rules about how that information is being collected, maintained [and] disseminated to other agencies, and there are no guidelines about limiting the government’s use of that information,” Michael W. Macleod-Ball, chief of staff for the ACLU’s Washington office, told Politico this week in the wake of the question being added. “While the government certainly has a right to collect some information … it would be nice if they would focus on the privacy concerns some advocacy groups have long expressed.”

Despite the question being optional, other critics questioned the precedent it could set abroad.

“Democratic and non-democratic countries — including those without the United States’ due process protections — will now believe they are more warranted in demanding social media information from visitors that could jeopardize visitors’ safety,” added Abigail Slater, general counsel for the Internet Association. “The nature of the DHS’ requests delves into personal information, creating an information dragnet.”

Privacy concerns aside, the addition of the social media question comes amid an ongoing effort by lawmakers to keep terrorists groups from using platforms like Twitter and Facebook to gain and radicalize recruits. While extremists have indeed been known to communicate off the radar of authorities by using encrypted apps, some recent terror suspects maintained active social media accounts prior to being caught, at times leaving very public clues not seen by investigators under after the fact.

In July, a report published Fordham Law School’s Center on National Security said roughly 9-in-10 of the 101 terrorism cases brought by U.S. prosecutors between March 2014 and June 2016 involved suspects who used social media.

 

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