On September 18, the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) announced it would begin collecting information on the social media accounts of all immigrants entering the United States in an attempt to screen out those with terrorist ties.
In a notice in the Federal Register, DHS stated that it would collect “social media handles, aliases, associated identifiable information, and search results” to place in immigration files.1 The information will come from “publicly available” sources, including “the internet, public records, public institutions, interviewees, commercial data providers, and . . . information sharing agreements.”2 DHS will screen social media beginning October 18 after a public comment period, the same day that the newly revised travel ban is set to go into effect.3 The exact scope of the collection is unclear—DHS did not specify if the data would be screened merely at entrance, or if the Department would continue to monitor accounts after immigrants settled into the United States.4
The announcement immediately attracted opposition from civil liberties groups. “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 of the Electronic Frontier Foundation told Buzzfeed News, which originally reported on the publication in the Federal Register.5 The program could even collect information from U.S. citizens who communicate with immigrants, Schwartz said.6
Others expressed concerns about the effect of the policy on immigrants’ free speech. “This would undoubtedly have a chilling effect on the free speech that’s expressed every day on social media,” said Faiz Shakir, the national political director for the ACLU.7
The practice, however, is not new. Collection of certain social media information began during the Obama administration in the wake of the mass shooting in San Bernardino, California. The two attackers had used private social media messages to communicate about their plans for the attacks.8 Lawmakers from both parties9 supported efforts in late 2015 to screen the social media accounts of visa applicants. Limited pilot programs for certain Syrian refugees and fiancé visas began in December 2015.10 The Office of the Inspector General later criticized those programs as ineffective and nonscalable. None of the programs were found to have produced actionable intelligence on national security.11
DHS defended the program, stating that it “has and continues to monitor publicly available social media to protect the homeland.”12 The notice was posted in the Federal Register merely to “comply with the administrative requirements of the Privacy Act.”13
Faiza Patel of the Liberty and National Security Program at the Brennan Center disagreed, framing the program as an “escalation” of previous collection efforts.14 “What is different here is that it appears that they are monitoring people who are already in the United States,” including green card holders and naturalized citizens.15 Patel also expressed concerns about the purpose of the vetting. “The question is do we really want the government monitoring political views?” Patel asked. “Social media may not be able to predict violence but it can certainly tell you a lot about a person’s political and religious views.”16
Because the Trump administration seems unlikely to halt its collection, immigrants entering the United States risk exposing their data to the government. What exactly the government will do with this information remains to be seen.