Beginning October 18, the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) began collecting social media data from all immigrants entering the United States, including permanent residents and naturalized citizens. The data collected will be saved in a government database. It is not clear if the information will be stored indefinitely.
The new rule was announced in the Federal Register as part of an effort to update the Privacy Act of 1974. The policy allows DHS to include new sources of information in the files of immigrants and visa applicants, including “social media handles, aliases, associated identifiable information and search results.”
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.
Privacy and national security experts see the new rule as an escalation 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.
Privacy and national security experts expressed over the new rule, saying it is an invasion of privacy and chills speech. THe ACLU said the “collect-it-all approach” is ineffective to protecting national security and is anti-immigrant.
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.