The Department of Homeland Security (DHS) will Monitor Social Media in US Immigration Process
In what may be conspiracists’ Big Brother nightmare comes true or a real-life episode out of “Black Mirror”, the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) will now be tapping into immigrants’ social media beginning October 18th. If you’ve read the article on Trump’s newest travel ban, you might find the date familiar. That’s because October 18th is also the same day when the updated travel restrictions take place. This data-collection step will rope in everyone who is an immigrant, including green card holders and naturalized citizens. It doesn’t stop there. DHS will also monitor communication from anyone with these individuals via social media.
Even though tapping into social media accounts has been in the discussions for a while, the DHS started to draft out a detailed plan after the mass shooting at San Bernardino, California. It aims to detect any hint of terroristic motive, primarily from groups such as the Islamic State, otherwise known as ISIS. As a response to this data collection policy, many privacy-advocacy groups voiced serious concern on the infringement of privacy. Some accused the measure as part of Trump administration’s signature move on anti-immigration. Though the procedure has become comparatively draconian, the federal government was already asking immigrants and visitors to share their social media information for the four pilot screening program during the Obama administration. Through its evolution, DHS officials say this protocol listed specific items that the government will be collecting, which is more detailed than its predecessors, but privacy advocates are worried that the language regarding search results and conversations on social media still remain vague. We will walk you through the details, giving you the most recent update at your finger tips.
This implementation, DHS stated, will mark social media account information such as handles, alias, search results, and any other associated identification as official records. These collected data will become part of immigration files, also called Alien File. The department stated that the data will be collected from “publicly available information obtained from the internet, public records, public institutions, interviewees, and commercial data providers.” However, it did not explain which commercial data providers are on the list. Department officials say this measure is not new because the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services has already been collecting information on immigrants applying for visas and citizenships. Although the department won’t be recording additional social media data from naturalized U.S. citizens, officials say they may still keep information on file from when those individuals applied for citizenship up until the time they applied for citizenship.
Since the 2015 mass shooting in San Bernardino, lawmakers felt increasingly alert how terrorist groups are using social media to conspire with others. Tashfeen Malik, one of the two attackers, voiced strong support for jihad and carried conversations on social media but the posted comments were only available to a small group of friends. Since then, DHS has been under pressure to lay out a more detailed social media monitoring plan. It incorporated social media searches into the visa application, particularly on those who were applying for the fiancé visas. Then in 2016 the department included a new section in the travel form for visitors arriving in U.S. The addition asks for visa waivers to provide their social media handles used in the past five years. Recently, DHS proposed that it will start requesting persons coming from any one of the countries on the travel ban list to provide not only their social media accounts but also their passwords. These changes demonstrated an intensified vetting process since the Obama administration. Previously social media screening was only applied to Syrian refugees entering U.S. soil, particularly those flagged by match on the intelligence database or if an official found something of concern during the interview process. Opponents of data collection and social media monitoring criticizes how these actions violate the Privacy Act of 1974. They add that the federal government is slowly blurring the line that protects people’s freedom of speech on the Internet.
Be More Aware of Your Online Presence
With each step of increasingly careful monitoring of social media, immigrants are growing weary of it being an infringement to their freedom of expression. One of Engadget’s (an online publication about all things tech and then some) editor, Cherlynn Low, wrote about her struggle between authenticity and fear of being flagged for something she posed on Instagram. Another, Sam Sinai who has a Iran-U.S. dual citizen studying at Harvard University was questioned by the US Customs and Border Protection agents. They told him he was selected for extra screening and they asked him about his political beliefs. Sinai has experienced extra screenings before upon returning to U.S. from his visit to Iran, but what caught him off guard was the additional question regarding his political view. As he walked away, Sinai says he couldn’t help but think why the extra question, and then it dawned on him. They checked him online. Sinai has published articles on Iran-U.S. relation and answered questions regarding Iran on the Internet. Since that experience, Sinai says now he has reasons to be more aware of his online presence.
Faiz Shakir, the national political director for the American Civil Liberties Union, calls this the “chilling effect”. He says individuals of immigrant background will feel restricted regarding what they can and cannot say. In addition, those along his school of thoughts raised several other concerns such as lack of confirmation on the success of previous pilot program, no assurance against bots automatically including even the wrong targets, no clear way of predicting people’s behavior, and its effectiveness questionable. DHS’ spokeswoman Joanne Talbot told NPR that the department has been collecting social media data from immigrants since a policy adopted back in 2012. Talbot says the department is not using new method rather it’s continuing to collect publicly-available information as it has been since 5 years ago. She also said the department is specifying the type of information collected in an effort to be more transparent.
The DHS took additional measure to demonstrate transparency such as publishing a report in February about the department’s social media data collection and providing an online platform to anyone interested in voicing their opinions on the federal tracking of immigrants’ social media.