The U.S. government is mulling whether to force foreign visitors to hand over their cellular phones so that officials can conduct social media screenings, check financial records, and ask “probing questions” about ideology, according to Trump administration officials who spoke with the Wall Street Journal.
Prompted by President Donald Trump’s campaign call for “extreme vetting” to prevent foreign terrorists from entering the United States, the government is considering strict guidelines that would require embassies to spend more time interviewing visa applicants, the Journal reported. The vetting procedure could affect people around the world, including visitors from 38 countries that participate in the Visa Waiver Program, including France, Germany, and Australia. That program allows citizens from specific countries to travel to the United States for up to 90 days without having to get a visa.
“If there is any doubt about a person’s intentions coming to the United States, they should have to overcome — really and truly prove to our satisfaction — that they are coming for legitimate reasons,” Gene Hamilton, senior counselor to Homeland Security Secretary John Kelly, told the publication.
The vetting guideline was part of Trump’s revised executive order in March that bans travel from six Muslim-majority countries. According to the Wall Street Journal, the order allows security officials to provide a “rigorous evaluation” of whether applicants support terrorism or are at risk of causing harm.
A federal judge in Hawaii put a temporary halt to the revised executive order, but the vetting review to get more information from visitors, refugees, and immigrants, has been allowed to proceed.
As part of the review, visitors would have to turn over their phones so that officials can check stored contacts with the goal to “figure out who you are communicating with,” a senior Department of Homeland Security official said.
The revelation of these new details fall in line with the guidance that Secretary of State Rex Tillerson issued in previous diplomatic cables. Those cables pointed to a “mandatory social media check” for applicants, including making them list all email addresses and social media handles used in the past five years. In those cables, he also wanted officials to ask visitors about their travel history, employers, and addresses used in the last 15 years.
The government’s crackdown on social media accounts comes roughly two years after two extremists carried out a deadly massacre in San Bernardino, California. It was discovered that Tashfeen Malik and her husband Syed Rizwan Farook had private conversations about jihad on an online messaging platform before they carried out the deadliest terrorist attack on U.S. soil since 9/11. Had officials found the private messages earlier, they may not have allowed Malik to enter the country on a visa.
There is inconclusive evidence that foreigners present a bigger domestic threat than do other people already in the United States, however. Right-wing extremists are more likely to commit terrorism-related attacks in the United States than foreigners, and a recent DHS draft report failed to find evidence that people excluded from the country because of Trump’s original Muslim ban pose a significant terror threat.