New York Times: “U.S. to Further Scour Social Media Use of Visa and Asylum Seekers”

by Joseph McKeown

The Department of Homeland Security (DHS) is building tools to examine social media accounts of visa applicants as well as those seeking asylum or refugee status in the US for possible terrorism ties. At a congressional hearing last month, Francis X. Taylor, Under Secretary for Intelligence and Analysis, the top counterterrorism official at DHS, said after the mass shooting in San Bernardino “we saw that our efforts are not as robust as they need to be,” and therefore would start to examine posts on Twitter, Facebook, and other social media sites.

This DHS announcement comes after terrorist groups, most prominently the Islamic State, also known as ISIS or ISIL, have been increasingly successful in using social media sites to spread propaganda, encourage independent terrorist attacks, and as a recruitment tool. Previous to DHS’s announcement, Senator John McCain introduced a bill that would require the DHS to screen social media sites for refugees and those visiting or immigrating to the US, and Representative Vern Buchanan has additionally introduced a bill mirroring McCain's that requires the DHS to examine all public records, including “Facebook and other forms of social media,” as part of the routine security background check.

“This legislation adds an important and necessary layer of screening that will go a long way in properly vetting the online activities of those wishing to enter the United States,” Representative Michael McCaul, chairman of the House Homeland Security Committee, told the New York Times. “A simple check of social media accounts of foreign travelers and visa applicants will help ensure that those who have participated in, pledged allegiance to or communicated with terrorist organizations cannot enter the United States.” While Congress has yet to act on the proposed legislation, in December, twenty-two Democratic lawmakers urged DHS to examine social media accounts for those seeking US visas.

Melanie Nezer, Vice President for Policy & Advocacy at HIAS, an agency that assists in refugee resettlement, commented to the New York Times about DHS’s social media plans: “We haven’t seen the policy, but it is a concern considering the already lengthy and opaque process that refugees have to go through. It could keep out people who are not a threat.” The American Civil Liberties Union of Maine agreed, telling WMTW News, an ABC affiliate: “We already have a rigorous and multi-layered security screening program in place for refugee resettlement that works. This proposal will only serve to further stigmatize immigrants and divide our country."

DHS’s new plan to review social media accounts comes after they abandoned a similar proposal in 2011. Currently, US Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS), an agency of DHS, examines social media accounts as part of the screening process for certain Syrian refugees, but only when there is a "hit" in an intelligence database for the applicant or if there is a security concern stemming from the interview with immigration officials. DHS says they are now hoping to automate the social media review, as a huge amount of messages and other data will need to be processed, as well as make additional hires to conduct the necessary social media security checks.

While data mining experts such as John Elder, who has worked with the Internal Revenue Service and the Postal Service on fraud detection, believe that analyzing social media accounts of millions of people who enter the US each year is feasible, other stress that conducting a thorough and accurate review would be very difficult. David Heyman, a former Assistant Secretary of Policy for DHS, told the New York Times: “You have to be careful how you design the proposal to screen people,” he said. “Artificial intelligence and algorithms have a poor ability to discern sarcasm or parody.”