EFF is urging the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) to end its programs of social media surveillance and automated “extreme vetting” of immigrants. Together, these programs have created a privacy-invading integrated system to harvest, preserve, and data-mine immigrants' social media information, including use of algorithms that sift through posts using vague criteria to help determine who to admit or deport.

EFF today joined a letter from the Brennan Center for Justice, Georgetown Law’s Center on Privacy and Technology, and more than 50 other groups urging DHS to immediately abandon its self-described "Extreme Vetting Initiative."Also, EFF's Peter Eckersley joined a letter from more than 50 technology experts opposing this program. This follows EFF's participation last month in comments from the Center for Democracy & Technology and dozens of other advocacy groups urging DHS to stop retaining immigrants' social media information in a government record-keeping system called "Alien Files" (A-files).

DHS for some time has collected social media information about immigrants and foreign visitors. DHS recently published a notice announcing its policy of storing that social media information in its A-Files. Also, DHS announced earlier this year that it is developing its “Extreme Vetting Initiative,” which will apply algorithms to the social media of immigrants to automate decision-making in deportation and other procedures.

These far-reaching programs invade the privacy and chill the freedoms of speech and association of visa holders, lawful permanent residents, and naturalized U.S. citizens alike. These policies not only invade privacy and chill speech, they also are likely to discriminate against immigrants from Muslim nations. Furthermore, other countries may imitate DHS’s policies, including countries where civil liberties are nascent and freedom of expression is limited.

Storing Social Media Information in the A-Files Chills First Amendment Rights

The U.S. government assigns alien registration numbers to people immigrating to the United States and to non-immigrants granted authorization to visit. In addition to containing these alien registration numbers, the government’s A-File record-keeping system stores the travel and immigration history of millions of people, including visa holders, asylees, lawful permanent residents, and naturalized citizens.

 In our previous post on the DHS’s new A-Files policy, we outlined the many problems with the government’s use of this record keeping system to store, share, and use immigrants’ social media information. In the new comments, we urge DHS to stop storing social media surveillance in the A-Files for the following reasons:

  • Chilled Expression. Activists, artists, and other social media users will feel pressure to censor themselves or even disengage completely from online spaces. Afraid of surveillance, the naturalized and U.S.-born citizens with whom immigrants engage online may also limit their social media presence by sanitizing or deleting their posts.
  • Privacy of Americans Invaded. DHS’s social media surveillance plan, while directed at immigrants, will burden the privacy of naturalized and U.S-born citizens, too. Even after immigrants are naturalized, DHS will preserve their social media data in the A-Files for many years. DHS’s sweeping surveillance will also invade the privacy of the many millions of U.S.-born Americans who engage with immigrants on social media.
  • Creation of Second-Class Citizens. DHS’s 100-year retention of naturalized citizens’ social media content in A-Files means a life-long invasion of their privacy. Effectively, DHS’s policy will relegate over 20 million naturalized U.S. citizens to second-class status.
  • Unproven Benefits. While DHS claims that collecting social media can help identify security threats, research shows that expressive Internet conduct is an inaccurate predictor of one’s propensity for violence. Furthermore, potential bad actors can easily circumvent social media surveillance by deleting their content or altering their online personas. Also, the meaning of social media content is highly idiosyncratic. Posts replete with sarcasm and allusions are especially difficult to decipher. This task is further complicated by the rising use of non-textual information like emojis, GIFs, and “likes.”

Immigrants feel increasingly threatened by the policies of the Trump administration. Social media surveillance contributes to a climate of fear among immigrant communities, and deters First Amendment activity by immigrants and citizens alike. Thus, EFF urges DHS not to retain social media content in immigrants’ A-Files.

"Extreme Vetting" of Immigrants is Ineffective and Discriminatory

In July, DHS’s Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) sought the expertise of technology companies to help it automate its review of social media and other information for purposes of immigration enforcement. Specifically, ICE documents reveal that DHS seeks to develop:

  1. “processes that determine and evaluate an applicant’s probability of becoming a positively contributing member of society as well as their ability to contribute to national interests”; and
  1. “methodology that allows [the agency] to assess whether an applicant intends to commit criminal or terrorist acts after entering the United States.”

In the November letter, we urge DHS to abandon “extreme vetting” for many reasons.

  • Chilling of Online Expression. ICE’s scouring of social media to make deportation and other immigration decisions will encourage immigrants, and Americans who communicate with immigrants, to censor themselves or delete their social media accounts. This will greatly reduce the quality of our national public discourse.
  • Technical Inadequacy. ICE’s hope to forecast national security threats via predictive analytics is misguided. The necessary computational methods do not exist. Algorithms designed to judge the meaning of text struggle to identify the tone of online posts, and most fail to understand the meaning of posts in other languages. Flawed human judgment can make human-trained algorithms similarly flawed.
  • Discriminatory Impact. ICE never defines the critical phrases “positively contributing member of society” and “contribute to national interests.” They have no meaning in American law. Efforts to automatically identify people on the basis of these nebulous concepts will lead to discriminatory results. Moreover, these vague and overbroad phrases originate in President Trump’s travel ban executive orders (Nos. 13,769 and 13,780), which courts have enjoined as discriminatory. Thus, extreme vetting would cloak discrimination behind a veneer of objectivity.

In short, EFF urges DHS to abandon “extreme vetting” and any other efforts to automate immigration enforcement. DHS should also stop storing social media information in immigrants’ A-Files. Social media surveillance of our immigrant friends and neighbors is a severe intrusion on digital liberty that does not make us safer.