Privacy Watch: US Visa Applicants Must Provide Social Media Details

By Jerri-Lynn Scofield, who has worked as a securities lawyer and a derivatives trader. She is currently writing a book about textile artisans.

The US just announced that all visa applicants must provide their social media details, as News Australia reports in New headache for Australians applying for US visa:

The US State Department is now requiring nearly all applicants for US visas to submit their handles for Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and YouTube as well as previous email addresses and phone numbers.

The new requirements, which were proposed in March 2018, are expected to affect about 15 million foreigners who apply for visas to the US each year and critics say it will unfairly target immigrants and travellers from Muslim-majority countries.

I don’t use Twitter, but I’ll cop to having a Facebook account.  Many of the artisans I’ve met through my textile research are Facebook users, and if I want to communicate with them, alas, it’s necessary for me to have an account. I’m an information taker. I never post anything on Facebook. And I have my privacy settings set so that only I can see what other friends post on my Facebook page. It’s not just the US that’s vetting the social media activity of visa applicants; in 2017, I had to supply social media details to procure a tourist visa to visit Iran.

As for the new US government visa requirements, this comes as no major surprise: I suppose those who share information on social media are well aware that any disclosures they might make on social media aren’t private. The news coverage of the new American policy makes it seem that it’s a peculiarly Trumpian depredation. But actually, the US government has monitored the social media traffic of foreigners for quite some time – as this 2015 Gizmodo article, Obama on Foreign Visitors: Public Social Media Posts Are Constantly Being Monitored, makes clear:

During a press conference today President Obama finally set the record straight about whether the government monitors the social media posts of foreign nationals entering the United States. The short answer: Most definitely.

Right now, the Department of Homeland Security hasn’t admitted to monitoring the private social media accounts of people applying for visas in the United States. But you can bet that anything said on an unlocked Twitter account or public Facebook post is fair game for surveillance by the Department of Homeland Security and other law enforcement agencies.

From President Obama, responding to a question from Reuters:

The issue of reviewing social media for those who are obtaining visas I think may have gotten garbled a little bit. It’s important to distinguish between posts that are public — social media on a Facebook page — versus private communications through various social media or apps. And our law enforcement and intelligence professionals are constantly monitoring public posts and that is part of the visa review process — that people are investigating what individuals have said publicly, and questioned about any statements they maybe made.

But if you have private communications between two people that’s harder to discern, by definition. And one of the things we’ll be doing is engaging with the high-tech community to find out how we can, in an appropriate way, do a better job if we have a lead, to be able to track suspected terrorists.

But we’re going to have to recognize that no government is going to have the capacity to read every single person’s texts or emails or social media. If it’s not posted publicly then there are going to be feasibility issues that are probably insurmountable at some level. And you know it raises certain questions about our values.

Keep in mind it was only a couple years ago where we were having a major debate about whether the government was becoming too much like Big Brother. And over all I think we’ve struck the right balance in protecting civil liberties and making sure that US citizens’ privacy is preserved [Jerri-Lynn here: original emphasis].

The American Civil Liberties Union believes that the new requirement may have a chilling effect on free speech. According to News Australia:

Hina Shamsi, director of the American Civil Liberties Union’s National Security Project, said there was no evidence social media monitoring was effective and that it could have a “chilling” effect on freedom of speech and promote self-censorship online.

“This attempt to collect a massive amount of information on the social media activity of millions of visa applicants is yet another ineffective and deeply problematic Trump administration plan,” she said in a statement.

“There is a real risk that social media vetting will unfairly target immigrants and travellers from Muslim-majority countries for discriminatory visa denials, without doing anything to protect national security.”

Now that the US has imposed such requirements, it’s likely other countries will adopt reciprocal policies. As The Hill reports in Trump administration to ask most US visa applicants for social media information:

Applicants will have the option to say that they do not use social media if that is the case. The official noted that if a visa applicant lies about social media use that they could face “serious immigration consequences” as a result.

For now, the drop down menu only includes major social media websites, but the official said applicants soon will be able to list all sites that they use.

“This is a critical step forward in establishing enhanced vetting of foreign nationals seeking entry into the United States,” the official told Hill.TV. “As we’ve seen around the world in recent years, social media can be a major forum for terrorist sentiment and activity. This will be a vital tool to screen out terrorists, public safety threats, and other dangerous individuals from gaining immigration benefits and setting foot on U.S. soil.”

The social media identifiers will be incorporated into a background check review against watchlists generated by the U.S. government.

Applicants will also be required in the future to turn more extensive information on their travel history.

I wonder who dreams up these policies. Do they really believe that potential terrorists are going to out themselves via social media posts? I mean, seriously: wouldn’t it be the case that such miscreants would do everything possible to pose as law-abiding milquetoasts. I would think the last thing a potential terrorist would do would be to upload incendiary commentary to social media. Sheesh!

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  1. dearieme

    I hope they accept nil returns. But I am joking: I can’t imagine I’ll visit the US again.

    We have a Kiwi friend who refuses even to change planes there.

    1. Joe Well

      And if this becomes the norm around the world? Will you just never leave your country?

      1. dearieme

        What has put our friend off the US is the obnoxious treatment he’s received at LAX when on his way from Auckland to London. He prefers to undergo civilised treatment in Singapore.

        And if this becomes the norm around the world? Much of the world would find a more intelligent and more courteous way to effect it.

        1. Tom Doak

          It works both ways, though. New Zealand probably wishes they’d had a little more social media background on that Australian visitor who massacred people in Christchurch last year. But, whether they would have red flagged him, while they were busy hoovering up trivial information on everyone else, is difficult to say.

          1. dearieme

            Unless he had a criminal record, as an Aussie he would automatically be free to enter NZ.

          2. R

            New Zealand is a member of the ‘five eyes’ surveillance / intelligence group and is bound to have active monitoring of this stuff in a similar vein to the US and UK.

            You would think if this sort of surveillance was in any way effective (and / or being used as advertised) they would have had a big red flag on that guy.

            Guess not though!

        2. Joe Well

          >>Much of the world would find a more intelligent and more courteous way to effect it.

          I’m going to take the gloves off for a second.

          The reason you aren’t hearing these kinds of criticisms about NZ or country X is that they are not the focal point of global civilization, and most people on earth just don’t care so much about how visitors from other countries are treated.

          Here’s someone who probably isn’t in love with NZ:

          (US permanent resident) Great-grandmother, 80, detained at airport after Immigration says she’s ‘too sick’ to be visiting daughter in NZ

          And let me just say, that if entitled people from First World countries got the same treatment as everyone else, that would be a point in favor of ICE. Unfortunately, I don’t think that is the case, but at any rate I will not be attending any marches on behalf of EU or NZ passport holders feeling miffed as they enter the US.

          Take your outrage and try to improve how your own country treats visitors.

          1. Edward

            “The reason you aren’t hearing these kinds of criticisms about NZ or country X is that they are not the focal point of global civilization, and most people on earth just don’t care so much about how visitors from other countries are treated.”

            I disagree; all these problems are “collateral damage” from American Imperialism.

            1. ambrit

              With the ongoing shift to “multi-polarity” going on, we can make that plain old “Imperialism.”
              American companies helped China build it’s “Great Fire Wall,” while international corporations pioneered “Credit Scores” as a method of siloing individual people.
              The first step towards ruling people is to create divisions between them.

          2. vidimi

            that’s simply not true. the US is by far the most uncivilised country for air travel that i have been to. everywhere else you are treated as a human being, not as a suspect. i also refuse to even change planes there. last time i did, the TSA went through my luggage in transit without me even being there.

            1. Joe Well

              Just because they don’t put a little card in your bag informing you of the fact doesn’t mean they haven’t been in your luggage.

    2. Edward

      Its not just this but the United States is now arresting foreign travelers that they accuse of violating the sanctions against Iran. Other countries might want to issue a travel warning against America.

  2. Joe Well

    It is a very easy thing to foresee, that as the US gets harder to visit, its position as the world’s leader in most fields of human endeavor will erode. Look at the damage it is already doing to private colleges and universities.

    I heard a rumor that the Latin American Studies Association, the biggest organization in that field, in fact, one of the creators of that field, will no longer have its annual conferences in the US because of the visa issues. Not the social media thing, but the general hardship of it all. Unfortunately, I cannot confirm this data point, it is just hearsay.

    Some background: the organization was founded in the US, the US represents the largest number of members (not sure if most), and for years the conferences were only in the US. Some years ago they began alternating one year in the US and one in Latin America.

    1. The Rev Kev

      Hadn’t thought of that aspect. Good catch that. There must be hundreds if not thousands of international conferences held in the US each year bringing in money, expertise and all sorts of goodies but if the visa regime gets too tough, they may opt for other countries instead to hold these conferences. In some ways, this may make the US a bit of a backwater in spite of all its power and wealth. Not sure how that would play out long term but I doubt that it would be good. I can only imagine that the next step would be to watch closely all those Americans that went overseas to attend such conferences because ‘security’.

      1. Joe Well

        It’s waaaaay beyond the direct value of the visits, which has always been huge. It’s the extent to which people have fond associations with a country. The “brand” to use a horrible neoliberal word, but much more than that.

        Many people are already opting out of visiting the US and have been doing that increasingly in past decades, so we don’t have a baseline to compare it against. The loss is truly incalculable.

        Also, the US is just physically distant from Europe, Africa, Asia, and South America so it’s always had that going against it anyway. If you look at a map, there is a much bigger population of people within a 5-hour flight of Germany than, say, Chicago. That in itself is an argument in favor of having a conference in Europe or North Africa.

        >>I can only imagine that the next step would be to watch closely all those Americans that went overseas to attend such conferences because ‘security’.

        That’s already been happening in a few celebrated examples that I don’t have time to get the links to yet. There was a US woman who went to Turkey for some kind of crafts conference for her business and ended up in some kind of watchlist hell.

    2. KLG

      I am a regular attendee of several annual international meetings run by American scientific societies. Attendance is off in all of them due to a dearth of scientific support from the usual sources, NSF and NIH, AND visa difficulties we have caused for international scientists. Many international colleagues just don’t want to deal with the hassle, and I find no fault with their reasoning. Inward looking xenophobia, to be redundant, is an untenable posture for a courageous people, which we as a nation are not. And it increases “security” not one whit.

      1. Joe Well

        This is how a society declines, not one thing, but a bunch of things all at once: visas, lack of investment, abusive governments, degraded infrastructure that makes travel even more hellish. The irony is that that is how people used to describe Latin America, but at least in the limited case of tourism, Latin America is head and shoulders better. Mexico certainly is, and I speak from experience.

  3. Wukchumni

    We treat international visitors upon entry to our country in the same manner that the police would book a suspect, a head shot & fingerprints.

    Eavesdropping on their lives online is just another outrage.

  4. Joe Well

    Question: does this apply to simple tourist visas, too? And does it apply to ESTA/visa waiver for countries like EU or Australia?

    >>I wonder who dreams up these policies. Do they really believe that potential terrorists are going to out themselves via social media posts? I mean, seriously: wouldn’t it be the case that such miscreants would do everything possible to pose as law-abiding milquetoasts. I would think the last thing a potential terrorist would do would be to upload incendiary commentary to social media. Sheesh!

    I was wondering if the main drivers of this aren’t:

    1. Normal organizational creep/adding budget and jobs in the relevant departments.
    2. Pressure from the mainstream media, especially that debunked New York Times article years back that falsely claimed that the San Bernadino shooters had been making public social media posts about killing people. Really, when you see a stupid US government policy, look for an even stupider mainstream media panic.
    3. Read meat for the domestic xenophobes.
    4. Ordinary xenophobia and bigotry in those departments. I don’t imagine their employees are self-selected for their love of international travel.

    1. GM

      The information itself I don’t quite see why they need. Given that everything is being tracked and recorded worldwide, they already know what you posted on social media.

      Also, it is not as if the immigration officers are going to, once armed with the identity of your Facebook or Twitter account, going to spend hours and hours reading through all your countless posts there. Ain’t nobody got time for that.

      So there has to be some algorithm being applied. Which someone is getting paid for. And that might be the very simple reason why this is being implemented — so that whoever is supplying that algorithm can get paid. Never mind that it is redundant and unnecessary even for its officially stated purpose, and that it makes the process yet more complicated and burdensome.

      Alternatively, if there is some actual intention behind this, it might be to intimidate people into not talking bad about the USA online.

      1. J7915

        I see this as an attempt to have a hold over people who just forgot some of the requested info.

        I started thinking about the various email handles at defunct ISPs, employers, throw away accounts, etc, and I was not an early adapter of email, do remember non-windows non graphic internet.

        1. Michael Fiorillo

          Shouldn’t we also assume that not being on any digital social medium whatsoever increases the likelihood of being flagged by the algo meisters?

          1. ambrit

            The Medical Industrial sphere has a similar ‘status’ label; that is called being “Non Compliant.”
            As the medical example we’ve experienced shows, this will not stop at simple ‘observation.’ Sooner or later, “compliance with established norms” will become mandatory.
            We’ve passed way beyond that “slippery sloe point of no return.” Now we’re ‘hanging ten’ on the perfect “Wave to H—.”

    2. Trick Shroadé

      I know a couple of people in the Australian navy who have taken various security and surveillance courses related to social media and they told me that it’s amazing how many persons of interest (I won’t say potential terrorists but not far from it) post all sorts of things to their social media accounts that would huge red flags if those people were trying to enter your country.

  5. shinola

    Since I’m a US citizen, this does not affect me (yet) but I wonder about someone who has no social media presence – no FB, twitter or other account & does not have a “smart” phone (i.e. someone like me). Would I/they automatically be considered suspicious?

    1. Wukchumni

      Turn yourself in to the authorities, you obviously have something to hide.

      p.s. I’m in the same boat

    2. GM

      Good question.

      And what about the people who have accounts because they are forced to have them in order to receive messages from people from time to time but other than that do not actually use social media.

      I am fully aware of the toxic and corrosive effects of social media on the human media, which is why I gave it up very early one (mid-00s) and have generally stayed out of it. But I do have accounts.

      Also, what about anonymous accounts one might have? What if you don’t list those? They will probably know you did not list them given that they know everything.

    3. ptb

      Yes, combined with other factors. I.e., it would increase your score in the points based system they use to formalize their prejudices.

    4. jrs

      well you could have a linked-in, noone is going to post anything but the most banal dreck there anyway, as it’s a job search site so under 100% potential employer surveillance to begin with.

      Since it’s for potential employers, it is guaranteed to be the most un-incriminating thing you’ve EVER done on the internet. The Feds can have it at it too for all I care. I already self-censor: because (job) markets ..

  6. Arizona Slim

    Okay, here’s my latest social media post:

    “Just changed my LinkedIn profile. And the dumb algorithm thought I got a job promotion. Algo, get a clue. I’ve been self-employed since 1994.”

    Makes me wonder what kind of algorithms the federal authorities are using. If LinkedIn can’t get employment status right, what will the feds screw up?

      1. Arizona Slim

        Yes, Greg, it is.

        I have a LinkedIn profile because people in business like to check other people out. And LinkedIn is the preferred social media platform for doing so.

        Since my profile wasn’t reflecting what I’m up to these days, I had to change it. Which prompted LinkedIn to announce that I’d just gotten a promotion.

  7. barnaby33

    If you are a US citizen you have no idea what a PITA it is to get a visa, unless you are from another rich country. If you don’t work in an embassy you have no idea how many lies and bullshit you have to deal with on a daily basis by people applying for visas. That’s where things like this are coming from. Sure there is a red meat xenophobia element. However it’s also a legitimate tool so suss out folks you might not want to issue visas too.

    I’m a gringo, married to a Latina, I’ve seen both sides of the issue and there is no easy fix.

    1. dearieme

      The last time we were in the US our business was as follows. (i) Arrive from LHR in an Air New Zealand plane. (ii) Disembark and wait until the plane has been refuelled, replenished and cleaned. (iii) Reboard that same plane and fly onwards to NZ.

      The keen mind will observe that there was no logical need for us to pass through US immigration at all: all that was needed was to contain us in a room from which we couldn’t just walk out into the rest of the airport. But no; we were made to join long, slow, hot queues, show our passports, get our irises checked, and undergo further rigmarole the details of which I can no longer remember.

      All this was performed by graceless louts. (My wife said it reminded her of entering East Germany.)

      Don’t blame Trump: this was in the time of W. I understand it got worse under O.

      And, for heaven’s sake, we were subjected to this nonsense while anyone could saunter in unchecked across the Mexican border. You guys are bonkers.

  8. Edward

    The big problem with the Total Information Awareness Program is analyzing the huge amounts of data they are collecting. This new information they want may help with that. Another concern is that this personal data is shared with private corporations and foreign countries such as Israel.

  9. Tom67

    I am West-German and a few times travelled to East Germany during the cold war. I travelled to the Soviet Union in 1985. I always dreaded these borders. The cold stares, the unforgiving bureaucracy, the checking of printed matter and the intrusive questions. I had hoped never to experience something like that again. But I did. At the Canadian-US border in 2005 and flying in to JFK in 2009. There is a better tradition in the US and I hope it reasserts itself.

  10. Spring Texan

    Five years? I wouldn’t possibly know every email address I’ve used in the last five years, to say nothing of on instagram which I have used but rarely, etc. I use a number of email accounts and have used others in the past – and am particularly careful to use only a one-purpose-only email (on a server in Europe that allows one to send encrypted email, anonymous emails, and one-purpose-only email addresses, to establish accounts such as Facebook (where I don’t use my real name) so that they can’t trace my email contacts. Or for yelp so my (mostly very kind) reviews are anonymous.

    This would be a horrible requirement as well as unnervingly invasive.

  11. RMO

    I’m sure people are going to be Catch-22’d with this policy:
    “You have to give us a list of all your social media accounts so we can review them prior to issuing your visa”
    “I don’t have any social media accounts and never have.”
    “We can’t process your visa application unless you give us a list of those accounts.”
    “But, I don’t have any. I never have!”
    “Well, we can’t proceed until you give us a list of your accounts…”

  12. Wukchumni

    And now for some good news…

    My first trip to Prague was in the mid 90’s, and after landing at the airport, I went through customs, and the customs agent was typing away on a computer and said “Your parents come to the Czech Republic quite a bit” and I smiled and nodded in approval, as he handed me back my passport and said:

    “Welcome Home”

  13. drumlin woodchuckles

    Is there so much as even one single air traveler who does not have social media of any sort? Would that traveler be banned from entering the US because of not even having social media?

    What if there were two or five or ten air travelers in the world who do not have social media of any sort? Would they all be banned from entering the US due to lack of social media?

    What if there were hundreds, or even several thousand air travelers, without social media of any sort? Would they all be banned from entering the US due to lack of social media?

    If they were all banned from entering the US due to lack of social media, could they sue for discrimination against people without social media? Could they even come together to form a class to sue as a class-action over discrimination against not having social media?

    If so, the outcome would be very educational however the verdict went. If the Legal Enforcement Court System decided that air travelers can not be excluded due to total non-possession of any social media whatsoever, then more people might have an incentive to drop all their social media and live a zero social-media life. If the Court System decided that the government could require and enforce the possession of social media as being a necessary condition for permission to enter or travel through the US, then the Court System would be openly stating, before God, CSPAN and the Whole World; that the DC FedRegime is now an overtly Mussolinianly-Fascist State, legally enFORCing the FORCED possession of private profit social media.

  14. TimH

    Most people are incapable of providing the required details anyway. Who knows EVERY ONE of their “previous email addresses and phone numbers”?

  15. Synoia

    I first came to the US in 1975.
    I had at that time visited 10-15 countries and lived in 4 or 5.

    At that time the US had the most unfriendly Immigration & Customs I’d encountered.

    I have now visited over 50 Countries.
    Returning to the US Customs is still the most bureaucratic.

  16. Mark

    I’m an Australian. I love visiting the US for my outdoor recreation, sure the world is full of great places of natural beauty. But the ease both in language and general freedom and safety make travelling there a pleasure. The people and the culture of the places I usually frequent is also fantastic and welcoming. (I phrase that carefully because I’m sure there is plenty of other places in the US (and in my home country) where there would be a less pleasant culture clash.

    But it sure isn’t fun coming through customs. I’d expect that the Iran customs would be more friendly than the US customs. I find it humourous that US customs agents are concerned that I’d work or overstay my visa to work illegally when I come from the country with the highest minimum wage in the world. Why would I want to work illegally in the US!?

    I am privacy concerned but for numerous reasons the benefit of having facebook account grossly outweighs the potential privacy drawbacks. As far as email addresses go, I’m sure I’ve go a few in the last five years I have forgotten about. I’m surprised they haven’t included phone numbers in this list. (And likewise I’ve had a few temporary sims that I wouldn’t have the foggiest what number it was.)

  17. Peter

    Supports my decision never to visit the USA ever.
    Did not so living in Canada – my son unfortunately had to fly to Australia by way of Los Angeles, an experience he promised never to repeat – and will never do so now living back in Europe. I rather pay a few dollars more flying back home to Canada avoiding US airports than getting stressed out by their border control.
    I received enough reports from Canadian and European friends to not undergo that torture..

    1. Joe Well

      The absolute worst most abusive border crossing I have ever experienced was entering canada. A quick Google search turned up many horror stories. I brought it up with another of other foreigners in Canada and they all agreed that their experience left them in anxiety that they would not be allowed in. At minimum adversarial deep questioning about why they were coming to the country.

      I googled for the Canadian version of the ACLU, but it turns out there is no such thing which explains a lot.

      It has been 6 years and I still have not returned to Canada and hope I never have to.

      1. Peter

        Thanks for you not intending to visit Canada.
        After having had my experiences with a multitude of US RV travellers, I gladly agree with your decision.

        The problem is of course that quite a few US citizens take it for granted that the same laws that apply in their Nation have to apply to the Nations they visit as well, and quite a few assume that Canada is just an extension of the USA (which by the way in many instances it is).
        I have heard many complaints by US visitors that they could not bring their handgun in their glove compartment across the border – imagine THAT.
        Or that those stupid Canuck stores not all accept the US $ as payment. An outrage.

        1. Joe Well

          Yours is unfortunately typical of the arrogance of many Canadians (thankfully not all) who want to condemn the US and Americans en masse but refuse to listen to specific criticisms of their own country’s government and institutions.

          I suffered abuses of my human rights at your country’s border, and your reaction is to insult my nationality and imply that I was trying to violate Canadian laws by bringing in a gun. This, fellow readers, is the educated Canadian English-speaking culture in a nutshell.

          The three reasons you have heard more about issues at the US border than at Canada’s are:

          1. It is the US, and justifiably gets more attention than a minor small-sized peripheral nation.
          2. Americans criticize their own government and listen when foreigners criticize their government. Not nearly as much as they should, but it is not rejected out of hand as in Canada.
          3. Canadian nationalism and anti-Americanism.

    2. MyLessThanPrimeBeef

      Will this have an impact on air travel*?

      Is it green, even if unintentionally so?

      *Not that cruise ships do not have their envrionmental issues.

  18. No FB

    One more step to Big Brother. Let’s just recognize that US is leading the way and soon, this will be standard practice in all countries.

    But how long before countries, especially US, grant visa ONLY if applicant has social media presence? If SM is good from screening unwanted (and of course, tracking movement and visa-overstays), why take chances with the “degenerates” that don’t have SM presence?

  19. JBird4049

    I hope people realize that all this is just security theater to look like they are serious about protecting us, is often just make-work empire building, security state money making jobs program, and a means of terrorizing us all into obedient docility, not to mention that too many of the people doing this are power tripping jackasses doing it for the funzies. Almost everything done since the 1990s and especially since 9/11 has not been truly for our “safety” nor been necessary. Almost all of it power seeking camouflaged by a facade of security theater.

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