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U.S. Border Control Starts Screening Social Media Accounts

From now on, if you apply for a visa for the United States, American authorities can ask you for your social network logins and passwords. The plan went into effect after it was approved by the U.S. Office of Management and Budget in late May 2017.

The new border control policy is part of the Trump administration’s “extreme vetting” efforts to catch potential terrorism suspects who may be intent on carrying out an attack in the United States. It is a sharp departure from previous U.S. immigration laws that stopped short of perhaps invading the privacy of visa applicants.

Additional Information that Consular Officers Can Request

Under the new policy, visa applicants will be required to fill out an additional questionnaire that details the usernames for every social media platform they have used for the past 5 years. This includes any websites or applications “used to create or share content (photos, videos, status updates, etc.).” Given the large spectrum of social networking sites, this would include Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, etc.

The new procedures also authorize consular officers to request additional information from visa applicants, including prior passport numbers, 5 years’ worth of social media usernames, email addresses, phone numbers, and 15 years of biographical information, including home addresses, employment and travel history. The new information will be provided via a questionnaire available on the Internet.

According to a State Department representative, this information will be requested only when it determines “that such information is required to confirm identity or conduct more rigorous vetting.” The State Department also said that the increased security screening would apply only to visa applicants who “have been determined to warrant additional scrutiny” in relation to terrorism or other security-related incidents.     

The Office of Management and Budget granted emergency 6-month approval of the additional questions, not the customary 3-year approval.

The questions are also voluntary, but the form warns applicants that failing to provide the information may delay or even prevent the processing of an application. This can cause significant issues for applicants on strict deadlines.

Divided Public Opinion on Social Media Screening

The additional screening is controversial, like most things proposed by the Trump administration.

The new measure comes after Trump’s failed attempts at implementing immigration policies, including two failed attempts to establish a travel ban for Muslim-majority countries and the proposed wall along the southern border with Mexico. Neither plan has much support or traction outside of the president’s base.

Supporters of the Trump administration’s new security measures say that checking the social media accounts of visa applicants can provide valuable information about terrorist networks and that it will keep dangerous people out of the United States.

“We are immediately taking measures to strengthen our already strong and monitoring and research even more,” a Department of State official said. “This includes facial recognition and fingerprinting technology, as well as interagency coordination, with the ultimate aim of identifying...individuals who may pose a threat to the U.S.”

Immigration lawyers and advocates, however, feel that the new social media screening measures are unfair and discriminatory.

Moreover, many, including San Francisco-based attorney Babak Yousefzadeh feel that the additional security measure is unnecessary. 

“The United States already has one of the most stringent visa application processes in the world,” says Yousefzadeh. “The need for tightening the application process is really unknown and unclear.”

Many opponents of the social media screening measure argue that the new questions grant nearly arbitrary power to consular officials when it comes to deciding who gets a visa and who doesn’t, with no effective check on the official’s decisions.

Immigration advocates also add that the request for 15 years of detailed biographical information and all of their social media handles will likely catch applicants who make innocent mistakes or who simply cannot remember all of the requested information.