What there is to know about new requirements requiring social media information from visa applications to travel, work, and study in the United States.
What are the new requirements?
In 2015, congress instated social media vetting for immigrants deemed “at risk.” This case by case social media investigating was in reaction to social media indicators linked to the perpetrators of the San Bernardino shooting which pre-dated their visa applications to enter the United States. According to the 2015 policy, applicants deemed suspicious in interviews or by immigration officials would undergo additional vetting through social media investigation. The 2015 policy was aimed at strengthening national security against potentially dangerous visa applicants such as the shooters in San Bernardino.
Recently, in 2018, the former policy was expanded as part of the Trump administration’s call for more “extreme vetting” of immigrants. New regulations require all visa applicants to divulge their social media aliases, or handles, from the past five years for investigation by immigration agencies. Each immigration branch of the DHS has a pilot program for social media analysis, but there have been extensive technical, logistical, and linguistic challenges to these programs.
Who will be affected by this new vetting process, and how?
Concerns for those trying to enter the country are evident, predominately the worry that this regulation could limit potential immigrants’ free speech online. The less obvious risk, however, are infringements on the privacy rights of US citizens and green card holders. Social media vetting was announced in accordance with the Privacy Act of 1974, which indicates that it will have two specific effects. First, it will involve the collection of additional governmental records on not just visa applicants, but also citizens. Second, the government will not only vet past activity, but reserves the right to continue monitoring social media use after a visa is obtained. Filing in accordance with the Privacy Act demonstrates that continual monitoring of citizens’ social media activity is thus a potential consequence of this new immigration regulation.
While ongoing surveillance sounds threatening, the powers provided by the 2018 regulation are limited to information publicly available—importantly not including social media users’ private messages. Moreover, the methods used thus far by the DHS have been ineffective at collecting and analyzing the vast information available in social media as evidenced by a thorough DHS report on pilot programs for social media analysis. Software methods have failed due to their inability to evaluate a wide range of languages as well as their inability to detect satire or parody. Programs using human agents for investigating are more successful, but cannot manage the sheer scope of all visa applicants. The 2015 case by case programs have already demonstrated the difficulty of analyzing the seemingly limitless stream of information presented on social media.
Ultimately, those worried about the new social media regulations are justified—it represents an infringement on citizens’ privacy upheld by only an unproven national security method. In practice however, this policy is not representing any significant change from Obama era ‘case by case’ social media investigations due to the unrealistic nature of broadscale social media vetting. Citizens who are against the policy should take the opportunity to speak out, while the program is still in its ineffective infancy.