The U.S. Department of Homeland Security will begin collecting social media information and search results to include in immigration records starting on October 18, according to a rule published in the Federal Register last week. The policy will affect individuals going through the immigration process as well as naturalized citizens.
The goal of the policy, which seeks to update the Privacy Act of 1974, is to “streamline immigration recordkeeping” so that the DHS agency can consolidate official records into one immigration record. The policy will allow the agency to pull new sources of information into that record including “social media handles, aliases, associated identifiable information, and search results.” The new policy will not just affect recent immigrants to the United States — but permanent residents and naturalized citizens as well.
Privacy and national security experts are wary of the federal government’s collection of social media data, as first reported by BuzzFeed’s Aldofo Flores, saying that the plan could allow the government to “snoop” and deter freedom of speech.
“We see this as part of a larger process of high tech surveillance of immigrants and more and more people being subjected to social media screening,” Adam Schwartz, an attorney with the Electronic Frontier Foundation, which advocates for privacy and free expression, told BuzzFeed News. “There’s a growing trend at the Department of Homeland Security to be snooping on the social media of immigrants and foreigners and we think it’s an invasion of privacy and deters freedom of speech.”
Schwartz also said that the rule would affect U.S. citizens who communicate with these immigrants.
The shooting in San Bernardino, California in 2015 turned a spotlight on culling social media postings out of national security concerns. Tashfeen Malik, one of the two mass murderers in the San Bernardino office shooting that left 14 people dead and injured 22 others, was found to have used an online messaging platform to write posts endorsing violent jihad. She otherwise passed three background checks before she immigrated from Pakistan to the United States.
Yet it’s unclear that using an immigrant’s social media postings could divine their future intentions or even the intentions of their relatives.
“It’s very difficult to successfully use social media to determine what people are going or not going to do,” Faiza Patel, co-director of the Brennan Center’s liberty and national security program, told BuzzFeed News. “When you look at all the different ways in which we use communication tools, and social media is pretty different, very truncated. People use emojis, they use short form, sometimes it’s difficult to know what something means.”
There are bad people like Malik. But as a DHS Office of Inspector General report from February indicated, pilot programs at the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) and U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agencies aren’t super effective and “lack criteria for measuring performance to ensure they meet their objectives.” And even with the scrutiny, numerous reports point out that refugees and immigrants, particularly those from Syria, go through an intensive immigration process that takes months.
The new DHS policy falls in line with what the Trump administration has already justified on national security fears. Soon after President Donald Trump signed the first Muslim ban, then-DHS Secretary John Kelly said that travelers from the seven targeted countries — Iran, Iraq, Libya, Somalia, Sudan, Syria, and Yemen — would have their social media accounts and phone records investigated by U.S. authorities. In June, the U.S. State Department enacted a stricter vetting process that requires applicants to answer an expanded questionnaire, which includes listing social media handles that go back five years and biographical information that goes back 15 years. The questionnaire is voluntary, but applicants are reportedly being told that a failure to answer could cause delays in their obtaining a visa.