Federal officials will begin gathering social media information from all immigrants, including permanent residents and naturalized citizens. First spotted by Buzzfeed News, the statement from the Trump administration was published in the Federal Register last week.
The new rule, effective on October 18th, grants the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) and US Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) the power to access the “social media handles, aliases, associated identifiable information, and search results” of any immigrant.
The step is the latest in what appears to be heightened levels of social media surveillance under the Trump administration. According to The Hill, the government gave a seal of approval to a new questionnaire in May for visa applicants that requests their social media handles from the last five years and biographical details dating back 15 years.
In response to the latest effort to collect social media data, the American Civil Liberties Union warned of a “chilling effect.” Adam Schwartz, an attorney with the EFF, the digital rights organization that advocates for privacy and free expression, said the plan was disturbing.
Among others, the new requirement would affect permanent residents who have a green card and naturalized citizens. By extension, it would also have an effect on anyone who communicates with immigrants on social media, as immigration officials could review their conversations.
César Cuauhtémoc García Hernández, an assistant professor at the University of Denver Sturm College of Law, told BuzzFeed that DHS has plenty of options in how it considers various data when judging immigration benefits, even if its reliability is questionable.
“Having government oversight with the potential for life-changing adverse consequences when it comes to social media use by prospective immigrants is a pretty direct affront to the longstanding promotion of free speech that’s at the core of the US constitution,” Hernández said. “Folks might share a post on social media that seems ripe for government officials to use as the hook for a conversation that starts to resemble an ideological purity test.”
New York University Law School’s Brennan Centre Liberty and National Security program co-director Faiza Patel told BuzzFeed News: “People use emojis, they use short form, sometimes it’s difficult to know what something means.”
“The question is do we really want the government monitoring political views?” Patel added. “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.”
We at NordVPN are concerned that the widened US surveillance may cause a significant online privacy and security threat for millions of people. When agencies monitor each immigrant-related conversation, there are no guarantees that the intelligence data will be truly secure and that it won’t end up in the wrong hands.
The decision to track people on the grounds of where they came from is morally wrong and shouldn’t apply in a democratic environment. Americans also need to understand that they don’t have to be born elsewhere to be caught in this dragnet. If, for instance, a US citizen is married to a US green card holder, not only will their spouse be subjected to this new rule, but so will they.
The effectiveness of this measure is also questionable: International practice shows that indiscriminately collecting data on huge numbers of people makes it impossible to process it all, allowing for valuable details to get lost in the noise. Besides, anyone can create multiple social media accounts and keep up a ‘clean’ version specifically for immigration officials, making the entire surveillance useless.
As there are many unanswered questions regarding this new step in the vetting process, it’s difficult to predict how the DHS will implement it until the policy officially goes into effect on October 18th. However, one thing is clear: The US federal agencies will intrude in our lives even further than they are doing now.