The State Department wants to require nearly all US visa applicants to provide social media username and account information, a move that would affect approximately 710,000 immigrant visa applicants and fourteen million nonimmigrant visa applicants. If these proposed changes published in the Federal Register are accepted after the sixty-day public comment period ends, the new requirements would ask for social media handles as well as prior email addresses and telephone numbers from the last five years when individuals apply to come to the US. This comes after the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) announced last year its intention to screen social media accounts of all immigrants, including Green Card holders and naturalized US citizens.
Previously, social media information and telephone histories were only requested from applicants who were facing extra scrutiny, including applicants who have traveled to areas controlled by terrorist organizations, a category that includes approximately 65,000 people each year. Last year, DHS began a process that would enable them to screen social media accounts for those seeking asylum or refugee status for possible ties to terrorism as well.
If the State Department’s proposed changes go into effect, it would apply to nearly all foreign nationals including those looking to come to the US for business or educational purposes. In addition to their social media information, applicants would be asked for five year's worth of telephone numbers, email addresses, and international travel; if they’ve been deported or removed from any country; and whether any family members have been involved with terrorist activities. Applicants for diplomatic and official visa types may be exempt from the proposed requirements.
The State Department is not the only federal department or agency looking to use social media data. According to emails and documents obtained by The Intercept, Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agents have used Facebook backend data to track and locate a suspect. Although it is unclear how widespread the practice is, in one particular instance last year, ICE agents were able to use backend Facebook data that revealed a log of when an account was accessed and the corresponding IP address for each login while looking for a particular suspect. The agency obtained a suspect’s phone number and the locations of each login and combined this data with information obtained by the cell phone provider, T-Mobile.
While Facebook claims that ICE does not have any “special data access” to Facebook and with this specific case they responded to ICE’s valid request in a manner consistent with their publicly available data disclosure standards, some immigration advocates fear that companies such as Facebook with lax data privacy practices will seldom push back when they receive subpoenas for information from ICE or other law enforcement agencies. Nathan Wessler, staff attorney for the Speech, Privacy, and Technology Project at the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) tells The Intercept: “For these subpoenas, it’s trivially easy for ICE or any other law enforcement agencies to issue.” As to the State Department’s social media proposals, members of the public can leave comments on the Regulations.gov website through May 29, 2018.