In 2017, the federal government surged its high tech snooping on immigrants and foreign visitors, including expanded use of social media surveillance, biometric screening, and data mining. In response, EFF ramped up its advocacy for the digital rights of immigrants. 

Social Media Surveillance 

EFF resisted government programs to collect, store, and analyze the publicly available social media information of immigrants and visitors. These programs threaten the digital expression and privacy of immigrants, and the many U.S. citizens who communicate with them.

Collection. The Department of Homeland Security (DHS) empowered its border officers to screen the social media information of certain visa applicants from China. Likewise, the State Department empowered its consular officials to gather this information from visa applicants worldwide. The DHS Secretary even floated the idea of requiring visitors to share their social media passwords

EFF opposed all of this surveillance.

EFF also advocated against a federal bill (S. 1757) requiring social media screening of visa applicants from so-called “high risk countries,” which would invite religious profiling against visitors from Muslim nations. These new government efforts build on earlier social media surveillance of immigrants and visitors, which EFF also opposed.

Storage. DHS disclosed that it stores the social media information it collects from immigrants and visitors in “Alien Files” (A-Files), a government record system that tracks people as they move through the immigration process. This announcement shows the federal government is holding onto social media information for an indefinite period of time, broadly sharing it, and using it for myriad purposes. EFF advocated against this excessive storage, sharing, and use of social media information.

Analysis. DHS is developing what it calls an “extreme vetting” system to automatically analyze immigrants’ social media information. EFF opposes this new program, which suffers many of the same flaws as algorithm-based predictive policing

Biometric Screening

DHS has long gathered biometric information from foreign citizens as they enter the United States. In 2017, DHS expanded its efforts to collect biometric information from foreign citizens as they exit the United States on certain flights. In a classic case of “mission creep,” DHS has also begun to collect biometric information from U.S. citizens on these flights. EFF advocated against two federal bills (S. 1757 and H.R. 3548) that would entrench and expand this biometric border screening. 

One of these bills (S. 1757) also would require DHS to collect DNA and other biometric information from anyone seeking an immigration benefit, and to share its biometric information about immigrants with federal, state, and local law enforcement agencies. EFF opposed these proposals, too.

Data Mining

DHS gathers and analyzes massive amounts of data in order to locate and deport undocumented immigrants. Sometimes, DHS obtains this data from state and local government agencies that collected it for reasons unrelated to immigration enforcement.

EFF advocated for a provision in a California bill (S.B. 54) that would have prohibited state and local law enforcement agencies from making their databases available for purposes of immigration enforcement. Unfortunately, this “database firewall” was later removed from the bill, at which point EFF pivoted to a position of neutrality.

EFF also supported a coalition effort to persuade corporate data brokers to refrain from making their data and services available to the federal government for purposes of mass deportations.

Other Snooping on Immigrants 

Cell-site simulators (CSSs), often called Stingrays, are police devices that masquerade as cell-phone towers and trick our phones into connecting to them. They are a form of mass surveillance that disrupt phone service and disparately burden communities of color. 

U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement has spent $10 million to purchase 59 CSSs, and used one to locate and arrest an undocumented immigrant. EFF opposes government use of CSSs to hunt down people whose only offense is to unlawfully enter or remain the United States. If government is allowed to use CSSs at all, it should only do so only to address serious violent crime. 

E-Verify is a massive federal data system that employers may use to verify the eligibility of job applicants to work in the United States. EFF advocated against a federal bill (H.R. 3711) that would require employers to use it. E-Verify is riddled with errors, and thus blocks many people from lawfully working. Moreover, data systems like E-Verify, which contain sensitive social security and passport numbers, are an attractive target for data thieves. 

DHS authorizes officers, with no suspicion at all, to search the smartphones and other electronic devices of everyone who crosses the U.S. border. Border officers do so tens of thousands of times per year. EFF teamed up with the ACLU to file a new lawsuit arguing that officers need a warrant for such searches. One of our eleven plaintiffs is Jeremy Dupin, a lawful permanent resident from Haiti and an award-winning journalist. The U.S. Constitution protects immigrants as well as U.S. citizens. 

Next Steps

EFF stands up for the digital rights of immigrants and foreign visitors for many reasons. First, digital liberty is a human right that all people should enjoy, including immigrants. Second, EFF opposes discriminatory intrusions on digital liberty, and some high tech surveillance of immigrants may be motivated by anti-immigrant or anti-Muslim animus. Third, government surveillance of immigrants and visitors often sweeps in information about the many U.S. citizens who associate and communicate with them. Fourth, government surveillance programs that begin by targeting immigrants and visitors often expand to target U.S. citizens, too.

These problems did not begin in 2017. EFF has long advocated against biometric and social media surveillance of immigrants, as well as E-Verify. But under President Donald Trump, intrusions on the digital liberty of immigrants are growing in intensity, as part of expanded immigration enforcement

EFF will continue stand with our immigrant friends and neighbors, and work to protect everyone’s digital liberties.

This article is part of our Year In Review series. Read other articles about the fight for digital rights in 2017.

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