Show us your social media account, US may ask visa waiver travelers

© Kevin Lamarque
Foreign travelers to the US that are eligible for a visa waiver may be asked to provide their social media accounts, according to the Department of Homeland Security, which maintains that visitors won't be profiled over any "social media identifiers."

The plan, first revealed in June and currently under cost evaluation by the Office of Management and Budget, would allow US Customs and Border Protection (CBP) to ask certain foreign travelers to the US to provide their social media accounts on customs documents to help "enhance the existing investigative process and provide DHS greater clarity and visibility to possible nefarious activity and connections," the US Department of Homeland Security (DHS) says.

The visa-waiver program allows for residents of other countries, including many Western European nations as well as Japan and South Korea, to come into the US without a visa for up to 90 days as a tourist. In exchange, US residents may also travel to the 38 eligible countries without applying for a specific visa.

If the plan is approved following a cost assessment by the Office of Management and Budget, those traveling under either the Electronic System for Travel Authorization (ESTA) or visa waiver programs under Form I-94W would have the option of answering, “Please enter information associated with your online presence – Provider/Platform – Social media identifier,” according to the Federal Register.

The social media collection program "may help detect potential threats because experience has shown that criminals and terrorists, whether intentionally or not, have provided previously unavailable information via social media that identified their true intentions," a CBP spokesperson told The Intercept, adding that "the collection of social media identifiers will not be used to prevent travel based on applicant’s political views, race, or religion."

The spokesperson would not indicate whether it would be detrimental to the applicant's visa waiver application to omit the social media identifiers on the visa waiver forms, The Intercept reported, or whether such omissions would trigger increased scrutiny of the applicant. The application could be submitted without social media identifiers, the spokesperson said.

DHS has said that relevant federal agencies "would only have access to information publicly available on those platforms, consistent with the privacy settings of the platforms," The Intercept reported.

The proposal could go into effect by the end of 2016 if it is approved by the Office of Management and Budget, which does not analyze such policies for civil liberties issues but rather cost and federal workload.

Many civil liberties organizations have expressed concern with the proposal. A group of eleven such groups sent a letter to the DHS in early October, stating that social media collection would likely mean "overbroad" storage and sharing of data, particularly that of Americans, and that social media "followers" of an applicant could prove detrimental to the applicant's waiver chances.

"In plain English, it appears that even if a friend or associate has not directly interacted with the applicant on social media, the agency will ferret out connections; if a 'follower' of an applicant raises a red flag for the agency, the applicant herself may be denied permission to travel to the United States,"wrote the groups, including the American Civil Liberties Union, the Council on American-Islamic Relations, and the Brennan Center for Justice.

Additionally, the United Nations Special Rapporteur on the right to freedom of opinion and expression said in September that the proposal is overly broad and vague in scope, and that "given the highly subjective and conclusory nature of social media information," the usefulness or necessity of the program to counter "national security threats" is in doubt.

"I am concerned that affected travelers lack sufficient guidance on what information to provide, how the information may be used, and the consequences of not providing it,"wrote David Kaye. "I am also concerned that, without sufficient guidance, relevant government officials might have largely unfettered authority to collect, analyze, share and retain personal and sensitive information about travelers and their online associations."

The Intercept recently reported that CBP and the FBI have used data gleaned by CBP border searches to look for "good guys" to be potential informants. The ACLU called that policy "unduly invasive" intelligence "dragnet."