On Thursday, the Department of State issued a notice to the Federal Register, soliciting public comments on a new procedure for vetting immigrants and asylum-seekers applying for US visas. If approved, applicants will be asked for their past five years of social media handles and could be denied entry if they refuse. The new rule, which is still under review but is slated to take effect May 18, would apply to visa applicants who have “been determined to warrant additional scrutiny in connection with terrorism.”
The effort to use social media to vet immigrants and refugees is part of the “extreme vetting” overhaul Trump has promised his base in order to block terrorists trying to slip through customs. The Department of Homeland Security began collecting similar information in February. The information the State Department wants to collect via the new vetting procedure covers:
• Travel history during the last fifteen years, including source of funding for travel;
• Address history during the last fifteen years;
• Employment history during the last fifteen years;
• All passport numbers and country of issuance held by the applicant;
• Names and dates of birth for all siblings;
• Name and dates of birth for all children;
• Names and dates of birth for all current and former spouses, or civil or domestic partners;
• Social media platforms and identifiers, also known as handles, used during the last five years; and
• Phone numbers and email addresses used during the last five years.
The notice states that officials can ask applicants for Instagram, Facebook or Twitter handles, but not their passwords or otherwise access their social media accounts directly. Not that they’d have to: Any publicly available info is already up for grabs and the State Department can request additional information from sites themselves. Sites like Facebook and Twitter comply with about 80 percent of requests.
One thing that isn’t immediately clear is how mandatory the checks are. Not supplying handles “will not necessarily result in visa denial,” but applicants must provide a “credible explanation” for not revealing the info or risk having their visa denied.
Further, while the State Department is forbidden from denying visas based on race, religion, gender, or sexual orientation, it’s worth noting that Facebook stores all that information on all of its users, including their religion, even algorithmically determining possible terror ties—usually without users even realizing it. With all these tools at play, it’s not hard to imagine a scenario where a refugee is denied entry because Facebook has algorithmically determined they have potential ties to terrorists.
Social media reveals much more than just a person’s friends list and travel history. It’s unlikely the State Department will use such intensive tools on every applicant, but it’s important to note how this new measure could combine with extant technology. Many have noted the potential of face recognition and biometric tracking for screening visa applicants. Combined with the relevant internet handles, those systems could allow for mixed databases of biometric and social data—and a new era of data collection and surveillance.