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Dear US Visitors: Homeland Security Would Like Your Passwords, Please

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Last night, Secretary of Homeland Security John Kelly was grilled by the House Homeland Security Committee on Trump’s Muslim ban, when he let slip an unusual strategy under consideration: demanding passwords from visa applicants.

Louisiana congressman Clay Higgins asked Kelly about “increased and enhanced use of social media to track potential terrorists” that could “link visa applicants with their social media profiles” using “publicly available data.” Higgins made clear his opinion that the Obama administration had not done enough in this regard.


In response, Kelly answered that “we want to get on their social media—with passwords.” While combing through the social media profiles and browser histories of immigrants was already proposed by Kelly during a press conference late last month, the addition of passwords is a delightful new twist.

The disconnect is in the nonchalance of Kelly’s overreach: When asked about how he’ll use publicly available information, he instead proposes the complete disclosure of online activities as if it’s the same exact thing. Maybe Kelly doesn’t understand how the internet works, though his statements suggest he simply doesn’t feel potential immigrants deserve digital rights. “If they don’t want to give us that information,” Kelly says bluntly, “then they don’t come.”


Of course, social profiles are easy to fake, browser histories can be scrubbed, and law enforcement officials have had issues investigating the online activities of individuals before. As the FBI’s investigation into GamerGate revealed, that agency was flummoxed by simple countermeasures like using proxies. (It’s not known, however, if DHS would be employing more advanced tactics.)

Confiscation of smartphones and coerced password inputs were reported for some of those affected by Trump’s Muslim ban, a move which was condemned by the Electronic Frontier Foundation. The ban itself has been frozen by the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals, though the administration is contesting that decision. Kelly, however, casually mentions that password access to computers and profiles is some thing he’s considering, “even if we don’t get out from under the court order.” So far the Trump administration hasn’t been that keen on due process, and it’s unlikely its stance on “extreme vetting” will be any different.