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DEEPLINKS BLOG

U.S. Customs and Border Protection Wants to Know Who You Are on Twitter—But It’s a Flawed Plan

August 22, 2016

UPDATE: The Office of Management and Budget (OMB) approved CBP's proposal to collect the social media handles of visitors from Visa Waiver Countries in December 2016. The question is on the online ESTA form and looks like this:

U.S. border control agents want to gather Facebook and Twitter identities from visitors from around the world. But this flawed plan would violate travelers’ privacy, and would have a wide-ranging impact on freedom of expression—all while doing little or nothing to protect Americans from terrorism.

Customs and Border Protection, an agency within the Department of Homeland Security, has proposed collecting social media handles from visitors to the United States from visa waiver countries. EFF submitted comments both individually and as part of a larger coalition opposing the proposal.

CBP specifically seeks “information associated with your online presence—Provider/Platform—Social media identifier” in order to provide DHS “greater clarity and visibility to possible nefarious activity and connections” for “vetting purposes.”

In our comments, we argue that would-be terrorists are unlikely to disclose social media identifiers that reveal publicly available posts expressing support for terrorism.

But this plan would be more than just ineffective. It’s vague and overbroad, and would unfairly violate the privacy of innocent travelers. Sharing your social media account information often means sharing political leanings, religious affiliations, reading habits, purchase histories, dating preferences, and sexual orientations, among many other personal details.

Or, unwilling to reveal such intimate information to CBP, many innocent travelers would engage in self-censorship, cutting back on their online activity out of fear of being wrongly judged by the U.S. government. After all, it’s not hard to imagine some public social media posts being taken out of context or misunderstood by the government. In the face of this uncertainty, some may forgo visiting the U.S. altogether.

The proposed program would be voluntary, and for international visitors. But we are worried about a slippery slope, where CBP could require U.S. citizens and residents returning home to disclose their social media handles, or subject both foreign visitors and U.S. persons to invasive device searches at ports of entry with the intent of easily accessing any and all cloud data.

This would burden constitutional rights under the First and Fourth Amendments. CBP already started a social media monitoring program in 2010, and in 2009 issued a broad policy authorizing border searches of digital devices. We oppose CBP further invading the private lives of innocent travelers, including Americans.

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