(Mis)Uses of Technology

by Tim Cushing


Filed Under:
dhs, social media



DHS Now Asking Visa Applicants For Their Social Media Account Info

from the (unofficially,-of-course) dept

The outgoing president may have made Trump's national Muslim registry tougher to create, but that doesn't mean the US government can stop making foreigners feel unwelcome. An idea the DHS floated (to much criticism) this summer is now part of the official paperwork.

Since Tuesday, foreign travelers arriving in the United States on the visa waiver program have been presented with an “optional” request to “enter information associated with your online presence,” a government official confirmed Thursday.The prompt includes a drop-down menu that lists platforms including Facebook, Google+, Instagram, LinkedIn and YouTube, as well as a space for users to input their account names on those sites.

The list is actually much longer than that, covering Tumblr, Vkontakte, Github, Vine, AskFM, and Flickr. And, as can be seen here, the DHS still has this part of the application process designated as "optional."

But that may not mean much, not when there's language barriers to contend with. Or applicants who may feel it's a bad idea to leave any blank fields in a government form, no matter what reassurances are given in the page header.

Then there's the fact that the DHS went ahead with this data collection despite its being both intrusive and mostly useless. It's supposed to weed out potential threats by examining social media accounts, but this process seems more likely to generate a load of false positives. (Fortunately, the DHS has plenty of experience gathering false positives.) It also failed to provide any information about how this information will be handled and who it will be shared with.

"There are very few rules about how that information is being collected, maintained [and] disseminated to other agencies, and there are no guidelines about limiting the government’s use of that information," said Michael W. Macleod-Ball, chief of staff for the American Civil Liberties Union’s Washington office.

Macleod-Ball also said it "would be nice" if the government had listened to the civil liberties concerns expressed by groups like his, but, then again, it "would be nice" if the government was generally more proactive on that front -- getting out ahead of complaints rather than just reacting to them. But it's just not going to happen. The government tends to push until something pushes back. And it does a lot of this pushing behind closed doors without asking for public comment.

Skipping this "optional" part of the application process may only increase scrutiny. Applicants will still be interviewed by CBP/DHS agents and the questions they field may revolve around any fields left blank. Agencies like these tend to operate with a "nothing to hide, nothing to fear" mindset and may view withheld information -- optional or not -- as the product of a guilty mind. The DHS says it won't officially prevent anyone who doesn't provide this information from entering the country, but there are several unofficial options that will achieve the same result.

Then there's the mission creep. Should this become part of the official form, you can expect other government licensing agencies to look at adding the same data gathering to their paperwork. In addition, the example set by the United States will only encourage countries far less interested in civil liberties from gathering this information from visitors to their countries, which means US citizens will need to get used to being more forthcoming with social media identifiers when looking to travel.


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  1. icon
    Anonymous Anonymous Coward (profile), 27 Dec 2016 @ 11:30am

    Anti Social Media

    What would they say if someone claims they don't have one? Would they assume a lie? How does one prove a negative?

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