The State Department has alarmingly declared that it wants to collect social media information from all visa applicants. This appears to be an expansion of a 2017 program that sought social media information only from a subset of initially suspicious visa applicants. This is also the latest effort in a troubling trend of conducting social media surveillance both domestically and abroad that began with President Barack Obama’s Administration and has continued during President Donald Trump’s Administration.
The State Department issued two Federal Register notices last week seeking public comments on its proposal to ask all visa applicants—those seeking both immigrant and non-immigrant visas to the United States—for social media information for the past five years. “Social media information” includes the online platforms that visa applicants currently use—or have used in the past—and their account identifiers or handles. This means that visa applicants will have to disclose their use of websites and apps such as Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Snapchat, and Pinterest. The State Department also wants to ask all visa applicants for the phone numbers and email addresses used for the past five years, among other information.
This questioning invades the free speech and privacy rights of foreign visitors to the U.S., as well as the rights of their American friends, families, and professional associates. As with other similar programs, EFF opposes this collection of personal information.
The State Department will amend several forms that visa applicants must fill out: Form DS-260 for immigrant visas, and Form DS-160 (online) and Form DS-156 (paper) for non-immigrant visas. The notices state that this information will be required of visa applicants, and that consular officials will use it for verifying applicants’ identities and vetting them based on visa eligibility standards that Congress has written into law. It appears, consistent with other similar programs, that only public social media posts will be reviewed, as passwords are not included in the information request.
This seems to be an expansion of a social media collection program the State Department instituted last year.
Starting in May 2017 and formalized in October 2017, State Department consular officials began collecting social media information, phone numbers, and email addresses for the past five years from “certain immigrant and nonimmigrant visa applicants worldwide who have been determined to warrant additional scrutiny in connection with terrorism, national security-related, or other visa ineligibilities.”
In order to “more rigorously evaluate” this “subset” of visa applicants who raised preliminary suspicions, State Department Form DS-5535 “Supplemental Questions for Visa Applicants” was amended to ask for this additional information. This form doesn’t require visa applicants to provide all the requested information; it states, “Failure to answer every question will not necessarily preclude visa issuance….”
EFF joined coalition comments opposing the 2017 program, as we weren’t convinced by the State Department’s weak assurance that failing to provide information wouldn’t be evaluated negatively. We argued that the collection of social media information implicates the civil liberties and human rights—free speech and privacy, specifically—of not only the visa applicants themselves, but also those of their American contacts. We also raised questions about the efficacy of social media surveillance, citing a Department of Homeland Security (DHS) Inspector General report from February 2017 that considered similar pilot programs run by that department.
These comments were similar to those we submitted to U.S. Customs and Borders Protection (CBP), a component agency of DHS, opposing the collection of social media information from foreign nationals seeking to enter the United States from visa waiver countries, as well as visitors from China.
Given that the State Department is expanding its 2017 program, and that it’s yet another social media collection program by the federal government, EFF’s concerns are growing with the growing numbers of individuals who are swept up by these programs. For its 2017 program, the State Department estimated that 65,000 visa applicants would be affected. This year, the State Department estimates that its new program will affect 710,000 immigrant visa applicants and 14 million non-immigrant visa applicants. And these numbers don’t include the Americans in the applicants’ social networks.