The US Department of Homeland Security (DHS) is expanding the kinds of information that it collects on immigrants to include social media information and search results. The new policy, which covers immigrants who have obtained a green card and even naturalized citizens, will take effect on October 18th.
First spotted by Buzzfeed News, the announcement from the Trump regime was published in the Federal Register. The new policy will not only allow DHS to collect information about an immigrant’s Twitter, Instagram, and Facebook accounts, but it also mentions all “search results.” It’s not immediately clear if that means the agency will have access to things such as Google search histories nor is it clear how that would be obtained.
The new policy includes 12 points of expansion on what DHS is allowed to collect, but numbers 5 and 11 seem to be the most alarming in their ability to reach inside the digital lives of immigrants to the US and anyone who interacts with those immigrants.
From the announcement (emphasis mine):
The Department of Homeland Security, therefore, is updating the “Department of Homeland Security/U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, U.S. Customs and Border Protection-001 Alien File, Index, and National File Tracking System of Records notice to:
(5) expand the categories of records to include the following: country of nationality; country of residence; the USCIS Online Account Number; social media handles, aliases, associated identifiable information, and search results; and the Department of Justice (DOJ), Executive Office for Immigration Review and Board of Immigration Appeals proceedings information
(11) update record source categories to include publicly available information obtained from the internet, public records, public institutions, interviewees, commercial data providers, and information obtained and disclosed pursuant to information sharing agreements;
The term “information sharing agreements” isn’t defined in the policy, but it could conceivably cover both the types of surveillance agreements that the US has with countries like the UK, Canada, Australia, and New Zealand under Five Eyes, as well as the agreements that DHS has with companies like Google and internet service providers.
As Buzzfeed points out, collecting this kind of information would also have a dramatic impact on every single person that interacts with immigrants to the US, since it would seemingly make all of their conversations on social media subject to surveillance. In the interest of full disclosure, yours truly is married to a US green card holder, so not only will my wife be subjected to this new rule, conceivably I will as well.
The Department of Homeland Security’s US Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) did not immediately respond to Gizmodo’s request for comment. We will update this post when we hear back.
Update, September 27th, 11:10am: After trying to get somebody to talk to me, I finally got an email from the US Department of Homeland Security this morning.
“This amendment does not represent a new policy. DHS, in its law-enforcement and immigration-process capacity, has and continues to monitor publicly-available social media to protect the homeland,” wrote Joanne F. Talbot from DHS Office of Public Affairs.
“In an effort to be transparent, to comply with existing regulations, and due to updates in the electronic immigration system, DHS decided to update its corresponding Privacy Act system of records,” Talbot continued. “DHS published this notice in the Federal Register on Sept. 18 to comply with the administrative requirements of the Privacy Act to help address these requirements, not launch a new policy initiative.”
But Ms. Talbot didn’t answer any of the questions that I sent to DHS, including questions about why this policy covers naturalized citizens. I responded by asking how it could be that this wasn’t a new policy if this notice was just now being published. And if it truly wasn’t a new policy, when was it enacted?
I’ll update this post further if I hear back, but I’m not holding my breath.
Update, September 28th, 8:00am: DHS has gotten back to us with assurances that search histories won’t be examined, and hints that naturalized citizens who went through the process before 2012 won’t have their social media monitored. You can read the full statement from DHS here.