Social Media and Data Privacy

The State Department is proposing to collect social media information from all visa applicants to the United States. In March 2018, the department issued proposals to require anyone applying for an immigrant or non-immigrant visa to provide for the last five years:

  • all social media handles and social media platforms used;
  • all phone numbers;
  • all email addresses
  • nternational travel; and other information.

Public comments are being accepted up to May 29, 2018 for the  nonimmigrant visa proposal and the immigrant visa proposal.

If enacted, it  would expand the collection of social media information to all visa applicants. Currently, the State Department can request the same information from certain visa applicants it has determined require additional scrutiny due to national security concerns.

Social media information has been monitored since at least 2010, although early monitoring appeared to be more targeted. Beginning in 2015, pilot programs began social media surveillance of those seeking U.S. immigration status. A year later, another pilot expanded that surveillance of those seeking non-immigrant visas. The Electronic Frontier Foundation has a history of social media surveillance.

In addition, the Department of Homeland Security is storing the social media information it collects on immigrants, including permanent residents and naturalized U.S. citizens. The data collected will be saved in a government database. It is not clear if the information will be stored indefinitely.

Privacy and national security experts express concern about the escalation of social media information collected and stored in part because it includes people who have already gone through the immigration process and become U.S. citizens. It also means anyone in contact online with an immigrant or visa applicant could have their data monitored and stored.

It is unclear whether DHS will continue to collect social media data after someone becomes a naturalized citizen, and whether that data can be used or shared after they are a citizen.

Data Privacy at U.S. Borders

According to Customs and Border Protection (CBP), their agents have broad authority to search all electronic devices at the border, regardless of whether you are a U.S. citizen or whether they have reason to suspect you committed a crime. As a result, the privacy expectations you have for your phone and other electronic devices that you have while living in the United States do not apply at the border or point of entry. There, agents have more authority and you have less privacy.

Civil liberties and digital privacy groups disagree. This ACLU post about technology and privacy at borders and checkpoints provides a detailed explanation of the issues involved. The post also offers tips to prepare for a trip, including recommendations to travel with as little data and devices as possible. 

The Electronic Frontier Foundation also provides details on how to prepare for international travel in their 2017 Digital Privacy at the U.S. Border guide.

Social Media Privacy

Anyone in contact through social media with an immigrant or visa applicant might have their information stored in the government database. The Center for Identity at the University of Texas at Austin offers these tips on managing your social media privacy.

The Electronic Frontier Foundation provides this Surveillance Self-Defense guide with tips, tools and How-tos.