Facebook is the Newest Visa Application Screening Tool
The State Department is Now Requiring Visa Applicants to Submit Social Media Account Information
Next time you’re scrolling through your Facebook account, double check to see if you have a friend request from the State Department. While you won’t actually get any Facebook updates from a federal agency, increasingly the DHS and the State Department have been collecting social media information from both foreign and American travelers in order to gauge security risks.
As of May 31, 2019, nonimmigrant visa applicants to the United States are now required to provide their social media information for active accounts within the past five years. The policy includes data from 20 major social media sites, including Facebook, Instagram, Pinterest, Google+, LinkedIn, Twitter, and YouTube.
A similar regulation enacted last September requires the collection of social media information from all immigrants to the United States, including green card holders and naturalized citizens. The rule affects about 710,000 people per year. This new policy implements a broad extension of the current rule, which will likely affect nearly 15 million people per year. Notably, about 40 countries whose citizens are typically allowed to travel to the US without a visa will not be affected by the requirement, including Australia, Britain, Canada, France, Germany, Japan, and South Korea. The policy also exempts travelers with diplomatic and official visas.
Social media accounts can provide the government with all kinds of information, from users’ religious and political connections, to their likes and personal opinions, to the identity of their friends and family. Members of the legal community have raised concerns that the policy will infringe on privacy rights, freedom of speech, and freedom of religion for immigrants and US citizens alike. A research report from the Brennan Center for Justice notes that social media posts and other information are “susceptible to misinterpretation, and wholesale monitoring of social media creates serious risks to privacy and free speech.”
The State Department has clarified that it “will be looking at public-facing content only and will not be requesting passwords for social media accounts.” Nevertheless, some travelers have reported being asked for their social media passwords at various ports of entry.
While the previous administration also asked visa applicants for social media information, submission was voluntary. Additionally, in a 2016 brief about these social media monitoring programs, the DHS stated that account information “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.” These programs did not determine whether the information in accounts was valid, and often failed to find the correct accounts for the individuals being assessed.
The Brennan Center report stated that these policies are harmful to both immigrants and US citizens because while the programs target foreigners, they also collect information “about American friends, family members, and business associates, either deliberately or as a consequence of their broad scope.” In addition, it states that social media information “has been used to target dissent and subject religious and ethnic minorities to enhanced vetting and surveillance.” Legal scholars are concerned that increased social media monitoring will dissuade visa applicants from applying and cause people to self-censor. In fact, one study showed that “awareness or fear of government surveillance of the internet had a substantial chilling effect” on free speech among internet users in the US.
While the State Department and the DHS support the policies as a method for strengthening the vetting process, critics are much more skeptical. The Brennan Center report notes that “In addition to responding to particular cases of abuse, Congress needs to fully address the risks of social media monitoring in immigration decisions.”