Photo source: The Journal
The next time you are entering the United States, you may just be facing a different set of questions on your immigration forms that you are normally accustomed to. That is because the US Customs and the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) have entered a new proposal into the US federal register for foreign nationals entering the United States to hand over their social media handles at a cost of almost $300 million a year. Based on the notice posted, the proposal entered suggested for a new field in which travellers entering the country are requested to declare their social media accounts and usernames.
Albeit responding to the questions remain optional, but the new proposed field will naturally open the door to customs officials to the foreign travellers’ online presence, an additional scrutiny on top of already being photographed, fingerprinted, and in-person interviewed, alongside numerous database checks.
“Collecting social media data will enhance the existing investigative process and provide DHS greater clarity and visibility to possible nefarious activity and connections by providing an additional tool set which analysts and investigators may use to better analyze and investigate the case,” the proposal writes.
The change in the proposal would see the additional field applied to the arrival and departure forms, Electronic System for Travel Authorization (ESTA) forms and Form I-94, which foreigners travelling to the U.S. without a visa must fill out, although the proposal would also be applicable to foreigners whom are travelling through the recently updated visa waiver program in its electronic form.
Extra note: The visa waiver program allows citizens from 38 countries to travel to the U.S for business or vacation for up to 90 days without first needing a visa. It was recently updated to bar people from using the expedited program if they recently traveled to Libya, Somalia, Yemen, Iraq, Sudan or Syria, with some limited exceptions.
Under the proposed changes, the forms would stand to consist of a new data field giving the option to visitors to “Please enter information associated with your online presence”, followed by blank spaces for travellers to fill out their usernames across various platforms.
While it remains vague on the process in which officials would take to investigate the social media profiles, this new form of social media snooping would certainly add a new level of scrutiny to potential visitors.
Currently, the U.S. Customs are seeking out considerations on the proposal until the 22nd of August, giving the public 60 days to comment on it before it is formally considered. Public comments are open via mail to to the Customs and Border Protection at its Washington office.
Given that at the moment the U.S. government still does not require employees to submit any social media accounts during security clearance reviews due its nature of skirting the line between civil liberties, there has however been an increased pressure from immigration and intelligence agencies to key in on social media profiles in which they attribute to the rise of global terrorism.
Giving grounds that the spread and recruitment of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria amidst cases such as the ISIS Paris attacks last November which were supposedly planned through encrypted chats, the government has targeted social media as a valuable tool to gain oversight on online extremism. In the wake of the terror attack in the San Bernardino shooting last December, the government now believes that social media can hold a cache of important information; especially since after Tashfeen Malik, one of the shooters in the attack, posted a public announcement on Facebook during the shooting and mentioned her belief in jihad in a private message on Facebook.
Crucially, the private messages were sent before receiving her visa, making it news which provoked some criticism, although investigators would still have needed significantly more than a screen name to see the messages. State Department officials claimed to be reviewing the visa application processes in the wake of the attacks.
At the end of the day, the proposed changes raises a flurry of questions. Will any beneficial outcome come from asking tourists and visitors to give customs their social media handles? Would it actually prevent terrorists from entering the country? If there were any dubious individuals passing through, would they choose to reveal their online presence if asked? What about potential terrorists already living in the U.S. as the country’s citizens? And eventually, would it be just yet another approach to impinge on the privacy of individuals?
If you are interested in further reading on the proposal, click here.
 Federal Register
 The Verge
 The Hill
 ZD Net
 NY Daily News
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