The federal government issued a proposal that would allow it to collect all social media identities from immigrant and non-immigrant visa applicants. The proposal is now open to public comments for the next 60 days and will require approval from the Office of Management and Budget (OMB).
Social Media Vetting
The U.S. government’s justification for this new proposal is that it wants to do more “vetting” of visa applicants before they are allowed in the country. The Department of Homeland Security admitted in 2015 that it was using social media to vet U.S. visitors, but that there were legal limits in its social media investigations.
In 2016, the federal government proposed for the first time to add a line to forms that need to be filled out by all visitors to the U.S. that would ask them to “voluntarily” reveal their social media identities. However, this proposal never had the feeling of being too optional for visitors. If the border agents feel that you’re purposely trying to hide some information, then they may deny you entry.
In 2017, the federal government came with an even more extreme proposal, that would require visitors to reveal their social media passwords to border agents. Refusing to do so would potentially result in an entry rejection by the border agents.
New Social Media Proposal
The government seems to have given up on that password sharing idea for now, but its new proposal would still require new visitors to the U.S. and immigrant visa applicants to reveal all of their social media identities used in the past five years. If it goes into effect, the proposal will affect over 14 million people annually.
The government estimates that it will get 14 million social media identity responses per year, and that it would take border agents 21 million hours annually to analyze all of them, with an average of 90 minutes per requested social media identity.
Public Comments Open For 60 Days
The government published this new proposal in the Federal Register today, which means the public now has 60 days to comment on this issue. The government is asking for comments for the following reasons:
Evaluate whether the proposed information collection is necessary for the proper functions of the Department.Evaluate the accuracy of our estimate of the time and cost burden for this proposed collection, including the validity of the methodology and assumptions used.Enhance the quality, utility, and clarity of the information to be collected.Minimize the reporting burden on those who are to respond, including the use of automated collection techniques or other forms of information technology.
To comment, you can go to Regulations.gov and search for the document by using “Docket Number: DOS-2018-0002” in the search bar. You’ll then see a Comment now button. Click the button and complete your submission.
After the 60 day public comment period expires, the OMB will need to either approve or reject this proposal.
Civil Rights Groups Condemn The Proposal
The Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) EFF and American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) have argued before against this type of policy. The EFF said last fall about a similar proposal that:
These proposals threaten the digital privacy and freedom of expression of innocent foreign travelers, and the many U.S. citizens who communicate with them. Moreover, the government has not shown that such information collection will be effective at combating terrorism.
The ACLU also noted the following in response to a similar proposal from the federal government, from last year:
Indeed, even providing information about the existence of one’s social media accounts can eviscerate the right to speak anonymously online and may chill people from creating accounts using pseudonyms, which is a common tactic used by victims of domestic violence or whistleblowers who fear retaliation.
Given what’s been happening with Facebook over the past two weeks, if this proposal passes it could become yet another reason for people to start quitting social media altogether. It’s not just Facebook, advertisers, and companies working for political campaigns that want all of your social media information.
Governments seem to have become increasingly interested in all the information you store on social media accounts, too. This means that social media accounts have become more than just harmless fun with friends on the internet. They’ve essentially become detailed dossiers we’ve been building on ourselves for more than a decade, and now they’re ripe for the picking by interested government agencies.