The Intercept: “The US Government Wants to Read Travelers’ Tweets Before Letting Them In”

by Joseph McKeown

US Customs and Border Protection (CBP) wants to start collecting online information from travelers coming to the US under the Visa Waiver Program. Earlier this summer, CBP proposed including a field on certain customs forms for “provider/platform” and “social media identifier.” If approved by the Office of Management and Budget, these changes could take effect by December. The Visa Waiver Program is used by millions of travelers and enables citizens or nationals of participating countries to travel to the United States for tourism or business for stays of ninety days or less without first obtaining a visa, when they meet all the requirements.

The Intercept reports that in recent weeks privacy groups have criticized the proposal, saying it could stifle online expression and gives DHS and CBP too much authority to determine what kind of online activity constitutes a “risk to the United States” or “nefarious activity.” The United Nations special rapporteur on the right to freedom of opinion and expression says the amount of information being collected was “vague and open-ended,” and that he was “concerned” that “government officials might have largely unfettered authority to collect, analyze, share and retain personal and sensitive information about travelers and their online associations.” A group of eleven civil liberties organizations claim that with the proposed changes it “appears that even if a friend or associate has not directly interacted with the applicant on social media, the agency will ferret out connections.”

CBP and its parent agency, the Department of Homeland Security, claim the social media question will be optional, and that the agencies “would only have access to information publicly available on those platforms, consistent with the privacy settings of the platforms.” A CBP spokesperson also claims in a statement that collecting social media information “may help detect potential threats because experience has shown that criminals and terrorists, whether intentionally or not, have provided previously unavailable information via social media that identified their true intentions.” The CBP spokesperson did not clarify to The Intercept if refusing to answer the social media questions would negatively impact Visa Waiver Program applications, or flag travelers for extra screening.

While not listed as a question as part of the visa application process, for at least a few years consular officers at US Embassies/Consulates and immigration officers at US Citizenship & Immigration Services (USCIS) have been checking up on applicants online, typically to verify credentials and see if there is any evidence the applicant is misrepresenting work history. For example, consular officers may check the IMDB page or foreign equivalent to see if the actor has indeed worked on projects claimed. But it’s not just foreign nationals being affected, privacy groups warn. Access Now and other privacy groups note that by looking at the social presence of foreigners, DHS will “inevitably suck up, retain, and share with other agencies huge amounts of information on Americans who are connected to them, even in a tangential way.” 

The comment period for the proposal ended earlier this month, and now the Office of Management and Budget has sixty days to ask the agency to amend the proposal or sign off on the change.