The U.S. Customs and Border Protection is proposing that a change be made to the application forms of travellers to the United States who do not require a visa. This change is the addition of a line which would ask applicants for their social media information. The Department of Homeland Security made the announcement about this change in late June 2016.
Citizens of 38 selected countries are eligible to travel to the United States without obtaining a visa. Such travellers only require a travel authorisation which they can obtain online via the Electronic System for Travel Authorisation (ESTA) in order for them to visit the United States for business or tourism for a period not exceeding 90 days. These nationals travel under the U.S.’ Visa Waiver Program (VWP) which was set up in 1986 by the United Stated government to strengthen its relationship with allies. American citizens can in turn travel to any of these 38 countries without having a visa.
This move by the U.S. Department of Homeland Security comes following the killing in San Bernardino, California. The killing was a shooting rampage by husband and wife, Syed Rizwan Farook and Tashfeen Malik which claimed the lives of 14 people and left 22 people injured. During the investigations, evidence discovered showed that the pair had been communicating about jihadism on their social media platforms. In the wake of this, the DHS has developed a plan to examine the social media footprints and activities of travellers who wish to enter the United States. This change is proposed for the ESTA application and the 1-94 forms that are used to record and document the admission of travellers into the United States.
The Department of Homeland Security proposed that the following entry be added to the Electronic System for Travel Authorisation application and the Form I-94W: “Please enter information associated with your online presence—Provider/Platform—Social media identifier”. According to the department “collecting social media data will enhance the existing investigative process and provide DHS with greater clarity and visibility to possible nefarious activity and connections by providing an additional tool set which analysts and investigators may use to better analyse and investigate the case.”
The DHS says that it is not a compulsory field so applicants can choose not to submit information about their online presence and social media activities. They have said that “It will be an optional data field to request social media identifiers to be used for vetting purposes, as well as applicant contact information.” They also say “the collection of social media identifiers will not be used to prevent travel based on applicant’s political views, race, or religion.” However expert analysts have said that those who choose not to volunteer the information requested could be subject to closer and deeper scrutiny as the absence of information might be viewed as a deliberate attempt to withhold potentially deleterious information.
Organisations such as the American Civil Liberties Union, Centre for Democracy & Technology, and Electronic Frontier Foundation have commented on the proposed change saying, “this program would invade individual privacy and imperil freedom of expression while being ineffective and prohibitively expensive to implement and maintain.” They also do not hold the opinion that having the social media information of potential terrorists will help in tracking them down. They wrote in their comment that “Individuals who pose a threat to the United States are highly unlikely to volunteer online identifiers tied to information that would raise questions about their admissibility to the United States.”
28 groups that are signatories to a letter to the Centre for Democracy and Technology sent to the DHS have so far rejected this proposal. The Free Expression Project Director of the Centre for Democracy and technology in a press release is quoted to have explained that “this proposal would move the world of ‘security theatre’ online. Social networks also go well beyond the individual account, making any such attempt to collect social media identifiers a threat to all of us with an online presence.”
Rachel Levinson-Waldman, senior counsel for the Liberty and National Security Program at the Brennan Centre for Justice says the move could have far reaching effects on people. She says, “the concern that stands out the most is the chilling effect that this could have. The request is so vague; it asks for information about social media and online presence, but there is no definition of what that means. This gives enormous discretion to Customs and Border Protection officers who are looking at information and asking travellers for that information. Any traveller who is coming to the country and thinks he or she might be asked for it, even if it is not officially a requirement, might reasonably think, ‘I should be very careful about what I am posting online.”
Other individuals and organisations have raised the opinion and observation that it is only innocent people that would supply their real social media information. This makes the effort of examining social media accounts for possible violent extremism-linked information useless since the people who have such communications on their websites would definitely not submit their information.
David Kaye, the United Nations special rapporteur on the promotion and protection of the right to freedom of opinion and expression also wrote that the information the DHS was looking to collect was vague and open ended. He also expressed concern that government officials might have unregulated access to personal and sensitive information of travellers.
Since the release of the proposal, no definite stand or conclusion has been released by the Department of Homeland Security on whether as an intending visitor to the United States, you will have to fill a form that includes a field for you to voluntarily supply