SAN FRANCISCO—The Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) today filed a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) lawsuit against the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) for records about a multi-million dollar, secretive program that surveils immigrants and other foreign visitors’ speech on social media.

DHS and Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) use the Visa Lifecycle Vetting Initiative (VLVI) to spy on potential immigrants and label them as threats based on their social media and internet presence, possibly leading to deportation and visa denials. VLVI grew out of the "extreme vetting" initiatives of former President Trump.

The public has no knowledge of how VLVI operates, EFF said in a complaint filed today in federal court in San Francisco. This is unacceptable. Social media surveillance violates the First Amendment by chilling speech and allowing the government to target and punish people for expressing views it doesn’t like. EFF previously called on DHS to stop the program for violating the First Amendment and because any vetting based on speech on social media would be ineffective and discriminatory.

“There has been no transparency about this program, and the public has a right to know how tax dollars are being spent to support surveillance of people’s speech,” said EFF Stanton Fellow Mukund Rathi. “While it began under the former administration, DHS seems to have continued paying for the system under the Biden administration, with a nearly $5 million transaction last May.”

DHS entered into at least two contracts with SRA International for VLVI, according to the complaint. They cover spending from August 2018 to August 2023, with a total obligated amount of $42.1 million. A $4.8 million transaction was paid on May 4, 2021.

EFF’s lawsuit seeks records on the current status of the program, including whether the government is monitoring people’s social media profiles and for what purpose, how this impacts visa approvals and denials, and details about the May 4, 2021, transaction. In a November 2021 FOIA request, EFF asked for all contracts, notes on how the program works, performance work statements, recent datasets used for input, training materials, operating procedures, privacy impact statements, audits, and reports to legislative bodies.

“How the initiative was supposed to work was unclear when it was announced five years ago and is even less clear as time has passed,” said Rathi. “We’re filing this lawsuit to enforce our FOIA request and change that.”

For the complaint:

For more on social media monitoring: