U.S. government begins asking foreign travelers about social media

By TONY ROMM

NEW YORK — The U.S. government quietly began requesting that select foreign visitors provide their Facebook, Twitter and other social media accounts upon arriving in the country, a move designed to spot potential terrorist threats that drew months of opposition from tech giants and privacy hawks alike.

Since Tuesday, foreign travelers arriving in the United States on the visa waiver program have been presented with an “optional” request to “enter information associated with your online presence,” a government official confirmed Thursday.The prompt includes a drop-down menu that lists platforms including Facebook, Google+, Instagram, LinkedIn and YouTube, as well as a space for users to input their account names on those sites.

The new policy comes as Washington tries to improve its ability to spot and deny entry to individuals who have ties to terrorist groups like the Islamic State. But the government has faced a barrage of criticism since it first floatedthe idea last summer. The Internet Association, which represents companies including Facebook, Google and Twitter, at the time joined with consumer advocates to argue the draft policy threatened free expression and posed new privacy and security risks to foreigners.

Now that it is final, those opponents are furious the Obama administration ignored their concerns.

"There are very few rules about how that information is being collected, maintained [and] disseminated to other agencies, and there are no guidelines about limiting the government’s use of that information," said Michael W. Macleod-Ball, chief of staff for the American Civil Liberties Union’s Washington office. "While the government certainly has a right to collect some information ... it would be nice if they would focus on the privacy concerns some advocacy groups have long expressed."

A spokeswoman for Customs and Border Protection, who said the government approved the change on Dec. 19, told POLITICO on Thursday the new policy is meant to “identify potential threats.” Previously, the agency had said it wouldn't prohibit entry to foreigners who didn’t provide their social media account information.

The question itself is included in what’s known as the Electronic System for Travel Authorization, a process that certain foreign travelers must complete to come to the United States. ESTA and a related paper form specifically apply to those arriving here through the visa-waiver program, which allows citizens of 38 countries to travel and stay in the United States for up to 90 days without a visa.

As soon as the government unveiled its draft proposal in June, however, consumer protection advocates expressed outrage. In a letter sent in August, the ACLU, Center for Democracy and Technology charged it posed immense privacy risks, given that social media accounts serve as “gateways into an enormous amount of [users’] online expression and associations, which can reflect highly sensitive information about that person’s opinions, beliefs, identity and community.” The groups also predicted the burden would “fall hardest on Arab and Muslim communities, whose usernames, posts, contacts and social networks will be exposed to intense scrutiny.”

After the policy changed, Nathan White, the senior legislative manager of Access Now, again blasted it as a threat to human rights.

“The choice to hand over this information is technically voluntary,” he said. “But the process to enter the U.S. is confusing, and it’s likely that most visitors will fill out the card completely rather than risk additional questions from intimidating, uniformed officers — the same officers who will decide which of your jokes are funny and which ones make you a security risk.”

Opponents also worry that the U.S. change will spark similar moves by other countries.

"Democratic and non-democratic countries — including those without the United States’ due process protections — will now believe they are more warranted in demanding social media information from visitors that could jeopardize visitors’ safety," said Internet Association general counsel Abigail Slater. ”The nature of the DHS’ requests delves into personal information, creating an information dragnet.”

 

See ESTA VISA PROGRAM APPLICATION BELOW: