Social Media and Security: Another Barrier to Entry

By: Robert W. Rust, II

Most of us have heard the adage that you should never write something you would not want read in the court of law. Well, this general truth is becoming even more true for certain individuals. On Friday, the Trump Administration announced a proposed rule that would require nearly all U.S. visa applicants to produce their social-media usernames from the last five years. The rule would require most immigrants applying for a U.S. visa to produce “social media handles, aliases, associated identifiable information and search results” from websites like Facebook, Flickr, Google+, Instagram, LinkedIn, Myspace, Pinterest, Reddit, Tumblr, Twitter, Vine, and YouTube, to the U.S. government in the applicant’s immigration file. In addition, the proposed rule would require the applicant to produce “past passport numbers, phone numbers and email addresses; records of international travel; whether they have been deported or removed, or violated immigration law, in the past; and whether relatives have been involved in terrorist activities.” In support of this rule, the State Department explained that “[m]aintaining robust screening standards for visa applicants is a dynamic practice that must adapt to emerging threats. We already request limited contact information, travel history, family member information, and previous addresses from all visa applicants. Collecting this additional information from visa applicants will strengthen our process for vetting these applicants and confirming their identity.”

As one can imagine, when whispers of this proposed rule began spreading throughout Washington, roars of opposition responded. Hina Shamsi, director of the American Civil Liberties Union’s National Security Project, declared that this new rule would “infringe on the rights of immigrants and U.S. citizens by chilling freedom of speech and association, particularly because people will now have to wonder if what they say online will be misconstrued or misunderstood by a government official.” Adding to this sentiment, Anil Kalhan, an associate professor of law at Drexel University who works on immigration and international human rights, wrote on her private Twitter account that the proposed rule is “unnecessarily intrusive and beyond ridiculous.” It should be noted, however, that efforts to collect social media information are not unique to the Trump Administration. During the Obama Administration, the State Department began asking visitors to voluntarily provide social media information

And while this new requirement would not affect the citizens of nearly forty countries to which the United States ordinarily grants visas, it would have a severe and palpable effect on millions of others. Users of Sina Weibo, one of China’s largest social media platforms, expressed their concerns with the United States’ proposed rule when one user asked: “[d]oes it mean someone’s visa application will likely be rejected if he/ she has been critical of the U.S.?” While the answer to that question is likely no, it is easy to imagine that criticism of the U.S. on an applicant’s social media profile will certainly be considered when granting or denying an applicant’s file.

When examining the history behind this proposed legislation, much of the concern for increased vetting of U.S. visa applicants stems from ISIS and ISIL’s well documented history of using social media to spread propaganda and commit terrorist attacks. Further exacerbating the need for a more intensive vetting process, was the 2015 mass shooting in San Bernardino, California. There, officials acknowledged that they had missed signs of online radicalization after a retroactive search of the assailants’ social media profiles revealed disturbing posts. Following that tragic event, members of Congress began urging the Department of Homeland Security to begin using social media history as a tool to further inquire into an immigrant’s life. If history can teach us anything about eroding expectations of privacy in the age of the internet, millions of U.S. visa applicants can expect this proposed rule to become law in the not so far off future. So, before you send that next Tweet, or post that next status on Facebook, ask yourself if you would want that social media post read in the court of law, because that may one day tip the scales against your chances of entering the United States through the U.S. visa system.

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