EFF and 54 civil liberties organizations joined comments this week written by the Brennan Center for Justice and the Electronic Privacy Information Center (EPIC) standing up against the U.S. government’s plans to collect social media information from foreigners entering the United States. This is the fifth time we’ve fought this battle in the past two years.
The U.S. State Department’s recent proposal is to collect social media identifiers, phone numbers, and email addresses used in the last five years from all visa applicants. This plan would apply to applicants seeking both immigrant and non-immigrant visas to the United States.
EFF opposed the plan in April 2018 when it was first revealed. As we wrote then, “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.” We also expressed concerns about the breadth of the program, which would affect 710,000 immigrant visa applicants and 14 million non-immigrant visa applicants, according to the State Department.
The proposal undermines civil liberties for everyone, unjustifiably burdening Muslims in particular. As we said in our comments, “Policies should be based on proof, not prejudice.” Further, we argue that the risks to individual rights are not justified by any meaningful national security gain:
“[T]he data collection will facilitate the bulk mining and wide-ranging use of information about travelers and U.S. citizens, including for purposes beyond those articulated in the Public Notices, amplifying the concerns above. These drawbacks are in exchange for speculative national security benefits, especially considering the vanishingly small number of vetting failures that have permitted foreign-born persons to commit terrorist attacks on U.S. soil.”
This is the latest social media-based proposal by the U.S. government that poses substantial risks to civil liberties without a clear operational benefit.
In August 2016, EFF opposed the plan by U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) to request social media handles—like those from Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Pinterest, and Snapchat—from visitors to the United States from visa waiver countries. We sent comments both individually and as part of a larger coalition. Disappointingly, the Office of Management and Budget still approved CBP’s proposal in December 2016.
In April 2017, EFF joined a coalition led by Asian Americans Advancing Justice to oppose CBP’s plan to ask visa applicants from China about their social media identifiers.
In October 2017, we joined coalition comments—led by the Center for Democracy & Technology—opposing the U.S. Department of Homeland Security’s plan to indefinitely store immigrants’ social media information in government files, including that of lawful permanent residents and naturalized U.S. citizens.
Finally, in June and then in October 2017, EFF joined coalition comments—also led by the Brennan Center—to fight yet another expansion of social media information collection. That time, the State Department empowered consular officials to ask a subset of supposedly suspicious visa applicants for information about the social media platforms they use. Under the current proposal, the State Department would now ask this of all visa applicants to the United States.
The U.S. government has repeatedly claimed—without proof—that these social media collection proposals would curb attacks on U.S. soil. The government is using the same reasoning, and the same lack of proof, to substantiate this latest proposal by the State Department. As the current coalition comments highlight:
"While no public audits have yet been released for State Department social media collection, a February 2017 Inspector General audit of DHS’s existing social media pilot programs found that insufficient metrics were in place to measure the programs’ effectiveness, and concluded that existing pilots had provided little value in guiding the rollout of a department-wide social media screening program. Documents evaluating these pilot programs show in further detail how they were expensive and time consuming but provided little useful information."
We hope the department withdraws its proposal and preserves the free speech and privacy of millions of visa applicants and their families, friends, and co-workers, including those in the U.S.
You can read the full coalition comments here.