DHS to Ramp Up Social Media Monitoring of People Entering the Country

DHS police outside a courthouse in Alexandria, Virginia.

DHS police outside a courthouse in Alexandria, Virginia.
Photo: Zach Gibson (Getty Images)

The Department of Homeland Security is stepping up the government’s existing program of demanding people entering the country hand over the details of their presence on social media, CNN reported on Friday.

While the State Department already mandates that almost all visa applicants inform U.S. officials of the names of any accounts they have maintained in the last five years on a large number of sites, a source at the DHS said that U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) and Customs and Border Protection will now be requesting that information on more forms. Those include requests for naturalization and asylum (in the latter case referring to refugees). CNN wrote:

The updated data collection will affect nine US Citizenship and Immigration Services programs for immigration benefits, such as applications for naturalization and asylum, as well as three Customs and Border Protection forms—for visa waivers, visa updates and the Electronic System for Travel Authorization document.

This is the first time Citizenship and Immigration Services would require social media accounts and handles on these applications, according to a DHS official. It’s unclear whether Customs and Border Protection was collecting this data in the past.

ACLU National Security Project senior staff attorney Hugh Handeyside told CNN that the increased requests are “a reflection of the extent to which U.S. government agencies have really expanded use of social media surveillance.” He added that the likelihood agencies will “misinterpret” online postings or otherwise use them against will “inevitably hamper freedom of speech.”

According to ZDNet, a DHS notice on the federal registry shows that they plan to request “immigrants, asylum seekers, and refugees” provide usernames for 19 sites: Ask.fm, Douban, Facebook, Flickr, Instagram, LinkedIn, MySpace, Pinterest, QZone (QQ), Reddit, Sina Weibo, Tencent Weibo, Tumblr, Twitter, Twoo, Vine, VKontakte, Youke, and YouTube. As ZDNet noted, DHS said earlier this year that lying or withholding information on these forms could seriously impact whether or not a given individual is able to secure approval for requests.

Moreover, in several incidents, U.S. border officials have reportedly denied entry to individuals after searching their phones and obtaining evidence as scant as who they follow on social media. In one high-profile incident, a Harvard student from Lebanon said he was denied entry because a border agent searched his phone and found that his social media accounts followed people expressing “political points of view that oppose the U.S.”—with immigration officials never publicly explaining what they found so objectionable.

According to CNN, a Brennan Center report found that in 2016, a brief provided by DHS to Donald Trump’s administration stated that “the information in the accounts did not yield clear, articulable links to national security concerns, even for those applicants who were found to pose a potential national security threat based on other security screening results.”

The DHS official that spoke with CNN said that the collection of social media details would make the “review of publicly available social media information more efficient,” adding that USCIS would store the information from two forms for up to 12 years, while CBP’s Electronic Visa Update System archives the information for 12 years. Any data linked to law enforcement will be “accessible for the life of the law enforcement activities,” the official told CNN.

The DHS has also recently come under fire for telling USCIS agents that they could resume the practice of creating fake social media accounts to monitor publicly available information—something that is against the terms of service of almost all major platforms.